“If I Only Knew Then… Divorce” by John Burke

At Gateway Church in Austin, John Burke shared the following insights on divorce:

“One hot summer day, Jesus was sitting by a well in Samaria when a woman came up to draw water. As Jesus and the woman started interacting, Jesus saw right through to all of the pain and hurt and mistakes of her past. Jesus offered her something he called ‘Living Water.’ He said if she wants it, she can have it, and she will never thirst again. She wasn’t really getting it that he was talking about meeting a deep spiritual thirst she had. Thinking he meant physical water, she says ‘Give me some.’ So Jesus cuts to the chase and says ‘Go get your husband’ and she says ‘I’m not married.’ He says, ‘You’re right, the truth is you’ve been divorced 5 times and the man you live with now you’re not even married to.’

Picture this: a woman devastated again and again by the pain and hurt of divorce after divorce, and she’s the common denominator. What does Jesus do? Does he condemn her for being a divorcee? No. Does he list out the litany of mistakes that led to all those divorces? No! Does he scold her that she’s adding to her troubles by shacking up with this new guy? No. What does he do? He offers her life! He offers her Living Water – a path forward with something spiritually satisfying to meet that deep spiritual thirst that was driving so much of her behavior and troubles. Jesus offered her another chance.

I wanted to remind all of us of the heart of Jesus before we dive into a very, very painful topic this morning. Relationships are at times very painful in our fallen world. Many of you here today have been shaken to the core by the painful effects of divorce. You’ve been hurt, you’ve felt guilty. You are ashamed and want to hide it just like this woman did. The last thing you need is to come here and feel condemned and hopeless. Jesus offers every single one of us, a chance to be forgiven and to heal and to move forward, filled up with a new kind of life.

My intent today is not to condemn or point fingers. Instead, I want to help all of us understand God’s intent for marriage and what we should do if we ever find ourselves struggling in marriage.

The main principle that needs to be understood is that God’s intent is that marriage is a life-long covenant established by God between two willing people. Like we talked about week, a marriage covenant in its ideal state is to be a tangible showcase of God’s unconditional, never leave or forsake you, love on earth.

But since our world is fallen, Jesus talks about divorce.

Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?’ ‘

Haven’t you read that at the beginning the Creator “made them male and female. For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh?” So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.’

‘Why then,’ they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?’

Jesus replied, ‘Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.’

The disciples said to him, ‘If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.’ – Matthew 19:3-10

Moses wrote in Deuteronomy 24 that if a man finds something indecent about his wife and divorces her, he must give her a certificate. This law was intended to protect the woman in a society, where, if she was not a virgin and didn’t have proof (a certificate proving) she was divorced, it could go very bad.

The intent is not divorce. The intent God had was to bond two people into this spiritual union of oneness. God intends marriage to last. And honestly, when we get sidetracked from the intent, looking for legalistic laws of who’s right and who’s wrong to divorce – we’re missing God’s heart.

Health magazine reported ‘ground breaking’ research: ‘Couples who stayed together fought as frequently, and over precisely the same things, as did couples who split up. Experiment after experiment showed this, until we couldn’t avoid it. We all have irreconcilable differences. Every couple has them. Those who have successful marriages simply have learned ways of talking about their problems.’ – Diane Sollee

As one writer put it, ‘If it weren’t for marriage, men and women would have to fight with total strangers.’ –  Anonymous

When you’re standing at the crossroads of a difficult marriage, the first question should not be ‘could I be happier with somebody else,’ but, ‘God how do you want me to grow through this? How can we go get help and work through this before it is too late?’

Too often couples wait too long to get help.

The religious Pharisees try to suck Jesus back into the controversy by saying ‘Yea, but then why did Moses command us to give a Certificate and divorce her?’ Jesus said: ‘Moses didn’t command divorce. God permitted you to divorce your wives for one reason and one reason only – because your hearts are hard! That’s why God allowed the provision of divorce. It was an accommodation. It was not the ideal. It was a concession because of people’s sinful tendencies to avoid allowing God to soften their heart, but instead keep hardening their heart toward their spouse.

God intends marriage to last, but God permits divorce when hardheartedness persists. Jesus says hardness of heart is the reason for the accommodation of divorce. I ask couples to walk at least a year with a counselor before determining if there’s hard-heartedness. Don’t determine this without wise outside counsel.

Divorce is never God’s first choice, but sometimes it’s the only way to protect one spouse when the other remains hard-hearted.

‘The LORD is acting as the witness between you and the wife of your youth, because you have broken faith with her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant…. “I hate divorce,” says the LORD.’ – Malachi 2:14-16

God doesn’t hate divorced people! God hates divorce. God hates divorce because God loves people, divorced or not. The reason God hates divorce is because it hurts the people He loves and destroys a marriage he intended to showcase His love.

One clinical psychologist, convinced that the “no fault” divorce laws were a welcome enlightenment, set out to study and write about how couples can make wise divorce decisions. What she found during her extensive study was so disturbing that she wrote a book and called it The Case Against Divorce. She said: I discovered in my research that the process and aftermath of divorce is so pervasively disastrous that in an overwhelming number of cases, the “cure” that it brings is surely worse than the marriage’s “disease.” – The Case Against Divorce by Diane Medved, Ph.D.

Another case study looking at the argument that “it will be better for the kids” if we can’t get along: There is, in fact no supporting evidence in this 5 year study for the commonly made argument that divorce is overall better for children than an unhappy marriage. – Surviving the Breakup by Dr. Judith Wallerstein

When you divorce, you often trade one set of problems for another.

Having said all of that, God Himself divorced! God made a covenant that he likened to a marriage covenant with Israel, but they were unfaithful again and again.

During the reign of King Josiah, the LORD said to me, ‘Have you seen what faithless Israel has done? She has gone up on every high hill and under every spreading tree and has committed adultery there. I thought that after she had done all this she would return to me but she did not, and her unfaithful sister Judah saw it. I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries.’ Jeremiah 3:6-8

God divorced out of love. God did it as a last resort in the hopes that they would return and be reconciled.

There is a way to divorce out of a motivation of love – in hopes a wayward spouse returns to God and to the marriage covenant. There’s no guarantee. When the marriage covenant gets broken, it doesn’t mean you have to divorce, but it means God permits divorce because there appears to be no chance of reconciliation.

So, what is the hard-heartedness that breaks the covenant of marriage? The debate of Jesus day is the same debate in churches today.

In the next sentence in Matt 19, right after saying that the reason divorce is allowed is hard-heartedness, Jesus says: ‘I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.’

Now, is Jesus saying that all divorce that isn’t because of marital unfaithfulness is totally unwarranted, and that if they remarry it’s equivalent to adultery? The Pharisees were legalists. They thought that as long as they gave a certificate of divorce, they were righteous. ‘Hey men, if you find someone more attractive than your wife…feel like it’s time for an upgrade—just make sure you give her a certificate, then all’s well.’ Because of that attitude, divorce was as common as marriage just like in our society.

Jesus says, If you MEN (and he’s talking to men trying to trap him – remember he’s not giving a message on divorce and all the justifiable reasons), he says “If you MEN go divorce your wife and marry another woman…” (and this is the point and it applies to men and women), if you use divorce as a means to be with someone else, that’s no different than adultery.

Divorce to upgrade is not O.K. If your marriage is tough, and you find someone else where the grass looks greener so you get divorced to be with him then Jesus says that is the same as adultery.

There are times when the marriage covenant is broken. Adultery breaks the marriage covenant. Abandonment breaks the marriage covenant.

In the New Testament, the apostle Paul is answering specific questions posed about divorce and remarriage, and he says, ‘To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife. To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him…But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances….’ – I Corinthians 7:10-15

Paul says ‘Jesus taught specifically about this.’ If a wife wants to leave her husband (and the indication is for ‘no just cause.’ The husband didn’t break the covenant, she just wants out), Jesus says, that’s not the best. If because of hardness of heart she does divorce, she shouldn’t remarry because her old covenant of marriage is still in tact. You’re just upgrading, and this is not the way of love.

Then Paul addresses this other issue that he says Jesus didn’t address. The implication is that not all situations that warrant divorce were addressed by Jesus nor by Paul. We would love to have 100 neat-tidy rules of when we are justified in divorcing, but again that’s not God’s way. His way is the way of love that doesn’t focus on justifying ourselves, but on letting God make us into people who do right even when others do wrong. Paul answers this question saying ‘If your wife or husband is not a Christian and you become one, don’t leave them if they are willing.’ In other words, the marriage covenant is still valid even in a mixed marriage. It shouldn’t be broken. If the other person abandons the marriage (leaves either by divorcing, or just deserts the other spouse—not wanting to be married), then you are free to remarry.

These are specific examples of hard-heartedness lived out. No Christ-followers should divorce without letting other Christians walk with them to help. Don’t make these decisions alone. Bring a Christian Counselor, or spiritual leaders at Gateway, or staff into it to bring wisdom. Walk through the Matthew 18 process long enough to determine if hearts are hard before ever divorcing. I’ve seen way too many impossible situations turn around when God and others are invited in.

Divorce is not the unforgiveable sin. Jesus gives us a path forward, just like the woman 5 times divorced. As a church, we will too. First, those of us who have never been through the pain of divorce, need to not cast stones, but invite people like Jesus did into Grace and a new Chance to Live life connected to God.

If you’ve been divorced, you need to do 3 “Rs” before you ever remarry. Repent – the word just means, admit where you were wrong. I’ve yet to see a broken marriage that was all one person’s fault (there are always 2 sides). An attitude of blame with no owning your own part is a sign of hard-heartedness, not tender-hearted pain that your marriage was broken.

Reconcile – The Scriptures are really clear, If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Romans 12:18 A tender-hearted person who is serious about following God’s way of love will seek reconciliation with an ex-spouse. To say, “I’ve tried to own my part before God, and now I’d like to apologize to you, and let go of hatred and hurt, I want to forgive you for your part – You may not be able to do the same, but that’s what I want.” It may not restore the marriage, or even a friendship. You may have to bring someone with you–but you need say, “I’ve done all I can to be at peace with my former spouse.”

Resist a Rebound – One of the greatest threats to a divorced person’s growth is a rebound relationship or marriage, and it happens like clockwork. I’ve rarely seen a rebound marriage last. Take a year at least, 2 or 3 is better, and find yourself and your security with God. Then you’ll be ready.

Intense stuff, but relationships are intense. There is no other place where God wants to do his work more, than in teaching you how to love another human being. Remember, that’s His intent, and at times, it’s hard work. At times, we fail, but God doesn’t stand ready to condemn us. When we fail, he wants us to recognize that we need Him that we don’t know how to love, and that He is the author of love. He wants us to reach out to him for forgiveness, for healing, for guidance. No matter where we’ve been or what we’ve done—no matter how barren the wasteland of our relational past—from now on we can drink in His Living Water and live a life of love. That’s my prayer for all of us.”

To watch or listen to this message, go to www.gatewaychurch.com/podcast.

For more articles and insights from John, go to www.johnburkeonline.com.


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