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Insight #235 — Marriage is for Life (in-depth study)

November 26, 2013.

“For better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish; from this day forward until death do us part.” Or a more modern version: “I will cherish our union and love you more each day than I did the day before. I will trust you and respect you, laugh with you and cry with you, loving you faithfully through good times and bad, regardless of the obstacles we may face together. I give you my hand, my heart, and my love, from this day forward for as long as we both shall live.” What amazing and beautiful promises! Are these really solemn promises to be kept for a lifetime, or are they just beautiful words to mouth on the day of the wedding?

“Until death do us part.” “For as long as we both shall live.” Whatever happens; whatever life throws at us. Regardless. The only escape clause in all these promises is the grave. Where does divorce fit into these promises? It doesn’t. Yet, all too often, these “vows” are empty words said with fingers crossed, having the mental reservation that if things don’t work out as I expect, divorce is easy to obtain these days.

There are many things about divorce that could be discussed. However, my intention here is not to invite questions on the many thorny issues surrounding divorce. My desire is to zero in on one issue: prevention. It would be wonderful if today’s message would put into motion determined efforts in some home to stop one divorce — to save one marriage.

God Hates Divorce

Let’s start with Malachi. “That’s Old Testament,” you say. Yes, and in the OT, divorce was allowed (Deut. 24:1-4). To me, that actually makes the various assertions in Malachi even stronger. God allowed divorce, even though He didn’t like it: “The Lord has been witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously: yet is she your companion, and the wife of your covenant… let none deal treacherously against the wife of his youth. For the Lord, the God of Israel, says that he hates putting away… take heed to your spirit, that you deal not treacherously” (2:14-16). Where this text reads “treacherously,” some versions read “unfaithful.”

God says that “putting away” (some versions read “divorce”) is treachery, unfaithfulness. The latter term sounds gentler, less threatening. Yet, the dictionary reveals the same basic meaning to both terms. “Unfaithfulness” is defined as “Not adhering to promises, obligations, or allegiances. Not true or constant to one’s sexual partner.” “Treacherous” is defined as “Marked by betrayal of fidelity. Not to be relied on; not dependable or trustworthy. Marked by unforeseen hazards; dangerous or deceptive.” These last few words are the strongest, yet it all boils down to not keeping one’s promise — in this case, a lifelong promise.

Now, if God allowed divorce (via Moses), how come He said (via Malachi) that he was against it? The same issue came up one day when the Pharisees quizzed Jesus about divorce. Since Jesus, building on the Genesis account, proclaimed that marriage is for life, the Pharisees asked why Moses allowed it. Jesus replied: “Moses because of the hardness of your hearts allowed you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so” (Matt. 19:8). Think of it. God allowed divorce because of hard hearts. Do we dare to make that personal, not just limit it to the Jews under the OT? Divorce today may well be evidence of hard hearts.

We must hasten to say that in the next verse, Jesus gives one ground for divorce: “Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, commits adultery: and whoso marries her who is put away does commit adultery” (Matt. 19:9). Jesus says that when you get a divorce for a reason other than fornication, it is adultery to marry another person. Hard words? Assuredly. But the Master has spoken.

In the OT, when God said that He hated divorce, He was not talking about divorce because of fornication/adultery. There was no divorce for adultery under the OT. The adulterers were to be punished with death! (Deut. 22:22) So Jesus permits divorce where the OT called for the death penalty.

There may be a second reason for divorce and remarriage given in I Cor. 7, but I am not going into that today. Whatever that teaching is, it is a special case when an unbelieving spouse wants to walk out of a marriage with a believer. Today I’m sticking with the basic rule and the basic exception. The basic exception is fornication/adultery. The basic rule is that marriage is for life. This is what needs so much to be emphasized these days.

Marriage is a Covenant for Life

Did you notice in the Malachi text we read: “the wife of your covenant”? It is not an empty term when we refer to a “marriage vow.” Call it covenant or vow, it is a solemn promise, “before God and these witnesses.” In recent years, are couples still promising “for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness or in health, till death do us part“? These words agree completely with what Jesus said: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matt. 19:6). The wedding vow is a promise for life. God, in Malachi, calls it a covenant.

What is your word worth? We live in a society where people so often do not keep their word. We live in the kind of society where someone says, “Lend me $20, and I’ll pay you when I get my next paycheck.” Ten paychecks go by and it’s not paid back yet. “Lend me your book; I’d like to read it.” The word was “lend,” but it never gets returned. We live in a society where people only keep their promise if it is convenient.

“Yes, but if I’d had my senses about me, I never would have married her.” “Yes, but he turned out to be very different from the person I though he was when we got married.” Turn to Psalm 15:1-4: “Lord, who shall abide in your tabernacle?… He that walks uprightly… He that swears to his own hurt, and changes not.” A man takes a vow which hurts him, but he keeps his vow. A woman takes a vow which turns into big problems, but she stands by her vow. It takes a person of real character to say, “I got myself into this mess, but I made a life-long promise; and, so help me God, I’m going to do my part whether my spouse does or not.”

Divorce is an awful experience. Those who have made studies of life’s emotional experiences have concluded that after the death of a loved one, divorce is the second most traumatic experience. There are scars that never go away. Very often there are children involved. Kids are torn between their parents, and between real parents and new parents. There are awkward moments at a child’s wedding or a mutual relative’s funeral when you can’t avoid the ex-spouse. Not to mention conflicts over child support and memories that won’t go away.

But the command of Jesus, “let not man put asunder,” is not just talking to the pair that gets married. It’s also talking to everybody else. That means parents, in-laws, friends, marriage counselors, sympathetic Christian brothers and sisters. Nobody should encourage a divorce. If you have a problem with your spouse and you run home to Mom, it may be the worst place to go. If you as a woman get counseling from a preacher — the two of you alone — you are asking for big trouble. And anybody who only hears one spouse’s story is poorly equipped to offer advice. Please study the wise counsel in Prov. 18:13 and 17. The message is plain: “let not man put asunder” — let nobody encourage the break-up of a marriage. Marriage is a covenant for life.

Love Is a Command

“Oh, but I don’t love her anymore!” Just go ahead and love her anyway. “But you can’t tell me I have to love somebody! I have to feel it.” “Love’s got to come out of the heart so you can’t command it.” Is that so? Whose book have you been reading? Where did you learn what love is?

“Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, You shall love…” (Matt. 22:36-37). The greatest what? The greatest feeling? The greatest suggestion? It’s the greatest commandment. Love is a matter of the will. Love is a matter of making up your mind as to how you’re going to treat that person. A brother once told me: “I don’t feel anything for her any more.” Well, if you can’t love her as your wife, and you don’t love her as your sister in Christ, and you don’t love her as your neighbor, then at least love her as your enemy.

What is love? We live in a society where people fall in love and fall out of love. In our crazy-sex-romantic age, the idea is that if love is gone, the marriage has got to end. The kind of love God talks about is not an if-love but a regardless-love. “I’ll love him if he treats me sweetly.” “I’ll love her if she gives me sex every time I want it.” God’s love turns these thoughts upside down. “I’ll love her even when she’s old and wrinkled.” “I’ll love him even when he upsets me.”

And we must return to Matt. 19, where Jesus permits divorce on the grounds of fornication. Read verse 9 again: “And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, commits adultery.” That’s permission, not a requirement. Even if one’s mate has committed fornication, there is room for forgiveness. There is room to consider that one’s own behavior may have contributed to the mate’s sin. There is room for this grave offense to be a wake-up call and a reaching out to the unfaithful partner and making every attempt to salvage the marriage. “And be you kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you” (Eph. 4:32). Do you remember that God forgave David for his adultery with Bathsheba? (2 Sam. 12:13)

Is it possible that part of the problem is that my marriage has been all about me? Is it time to reach out in true love for the mate and to do all possible to save his/her soul and to save the marriage? I’ve seen that level of forgiveness for adultery take place in a Christian marriage, and then “they lived happily ever after.” Yes, fornication is a grave sin, and Jesus says it is grounds for divorce. But He does not say it requires divorce. Among other things, it may be a time to consider if you, the “innocent party,” have contributed to the sin of your mate by failing to put into practice 1 Cor. 7:1-5. Read and consider it for yourself. It is God’s Word.

Bible love is not what I can get from my mate. Bible love is what I can give to my mate. “For God so loved the world that he gave…” Love is giving, not getting. In 1 Cor. 7:33, Paul writes “he that is married cares for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife.” The next verse says the same regarding the wife’s attitude toward her husband. Now for those of you who are already familiar with this passage, you may agree with me that Paul is not condemning anything here. He’s just telling it like it is — or should I say, like it’s supposed to be.

If you’re having trouble with your marriage, if your marriage is shaky, and you’re wondering what is going to happen to your marriage, then start today, not tomorrow, to see how many things you can do to please your spouse. Romans 15:2-3 says, “Let every one of us please his neighbor for his good to edification. For even Christ pleased not himself.” We need to be in the pleasing business — starting at home. Yes, I know that Galatians 1 speaks against being men pleasers. But we have to understand the difference. The latter is condemning false doctrine being taught because that is what people want to hear. The former is talking about putting the legitimate interest of others first — to please them for their good, as God defines good.

Do whatever is necessary to make your marriage work. Divorce is not the answer; love is. If for a time it has to be at the level of “we’re stuck for life, let’s make the best of it,” then start there. If for a time, it has to be at the level of “love your enemy,” then start there. Start wherever you are. With the help of the Lord, you can rise to a higher level.

The basic scriptural rule is that divorce is not the solution, it is not God’s way, it is treachery, it is caused by hardness of heart, and God hates it. The basic exception is fornication; but that gives permission for divorce; it does not require divorce. The basic rule is that marriage is “till death do us part.” The basic truth is that marriage requires commitment, effort, and love to make it work. Replace divorce with sacrificial, unselfish, tenderhearted love.