When Jesus said, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard” (Matt. 19:8), what did he mean?
In his commentary on the book of Matthew, Donald Hagner cites it as “an allowance dependent on the sinfulness of the people. In that context it served as a control against abuse and excess.” It’s not that Moses allowed divorce because the people weren’t good enough to stay married, so he said, “fine, go ahead and get divorced,” but rather because divorce was then the most effective tool to save a woman from abuse and excess.
Dallas Willard provides an interesting take by suggesting, “It is the hardness of the human heart that Jesus cites as grounds for permitting divorce in case of adultery. In other words, the ultimate grounds for divorce is human meanness.”
When Jesus speaks of divorce in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5), it is in the context of Jesus presenting a beautiful tapestry of a new life of goodness, made possible through the life of Jesus and the sending of the Holy Spirit. More than Jesus is saying divorce will become a thing of the past, he is saying that the meanness that causes divorce will have no place in his kingdom or among his followers, meaning there will be no need for divorce. Jesus empties divorce from within.
Life in Christ means husbands always act with love (present—ongoing—tense in the Greek) toward their wives and are never (aorist tense—even one time) harsh (Col. 3:19). Wives don’t go to war against their husbands (Col. 3:19). There is no sexual acting out or even mental sexual objectifying outside of the marriage (Matt. 5:28). A husband is as devoted to his wife’s welfare as Christ is to the church (Eph. 5:25) and wives study and even seek counsel to learn how to love their husbands well (Titus 2:4) and live with a kind, encouraging spirit while also maintaining sexual purity (Titus 2:5), as their husbands are called to do elsewhere. If we live like this—and all followers of Jesus are invited to, empowered to, and commanded to—there will be no need for divorce. There will be no “hardness of heart” (meanness) that a husband or wife needs to be saved from.
Which means when we address divorce as Jesus does we should emphasize removing the causes of divorce more than we decry the application of divorce. Because sometimes divorce is necessary. When meanness has reached abusive levels; when rampant infidelity is not repented of; when the soul of a man or woman is being emptied by the cruelty of his or her spouse, divorce becomes the necessary tool to separate the earnest soul from the toxic, destructive meanness of their spouse.
But in admitting this, Jesus says emphatically and with passion, don’t lose sight of creation as God designed it and the new creation as Jesus is launching it: marriage is designed to be a lifelong commitment between a husband and wife that should last until death and be renewed day by day by the life-giving Spirit of Christ. Divorce should be unthinkable when two people are redeemed and are earnestly seeking first the Kingdom of God.
So there’s a tension there, isn’t there? Divorce is a serious move with serious consequences. In marriage, two are made one and the separation cannot happen, will not happen, without serious ramifications. We are designed to be in one marital relationship with one person for life. Our kids are created to be raised by the same two parents for life. This is God’s creational design and as people who worship the creator, we should surrender to and even celebrate that design. Accordingly, divorce is a terrible though sadly sometimes necessary remedy when one spouse refuses to live a kingdom life of goodness and insists on being cruel and mean.
Willard explains that while Jesus condemns divorce when it is wrongly sought, “of course a brutal marriage is not a good thing either, and we must resist any attempt to classify divorce as a special, irredeemable form of wickedness. It is not. It is sometimes the right thing to do, everything considered.”
This position is why I often take heat from both sides of the debate! When I wrote the blogpost Enough is Enough, arguing that the church must support a woman’s right to leave an abusive marriage, a nationally known leader told me I had just thrown “two decades of a good name” into the gutter if I didn’t take down the blog and immediately denounce it. On the other hand, some get frustrated because I still think using divorce as a selfish weapon instead of a tool of defense is an evil thing to do. Just because some divorces are necessary doesn’t mean that divorce should be treated lightly. Very few believers would ever treat divorce lightly—I’m not making any accusations here—but Jesus does call us to sacrificial love and forgiveness and a ministry of reconciliation that means we should all work to become the kind of people who do not want to divorce (while understanding, without judgment, that there are some situations where others feel like they must get divorced).
Willard puts it this way: “Hard hearts may make divorce necessary to avoid greater harm, and hence make it permissible. But kingdom hearts are not hard, and they together can find ways to bear with each other, to speak truth in love, to change—often through times of great pain and distress-until the tender intimacy of mutual, covenant-framed love finds a way for the two lives to remain one, beautifully and increasingly.”
It takes two people to create a “kingdom marriage” with people who feel at home in a life of goodness. That’s why Paul explicitly says that if an unbelieving spouse leaves, the Christian is not bound (1 Cor. 7:15). A non-Christian doesn’t have the spiritual power to live the life of goodness that Jesus talks about in the Sermon on the Mount. Someone who claims to be a Christian but isn’t surrendered to the Holy Spirit won’t exercise the power of goodness.
So the goal is to preach the kingdom of God’s goodness, becoming good people and thus removing the cause for divorce. When divorce must happen, as God’s children, even the divorce can’t be an act of malice. In Willard’s words, “Divorce, if it were rightly done, would be done as an act of love. It would be dictated by love and done for the honest good of the people involved.”
It was only years after I wrote Enough is Enough that I read how Willard had come to the same conclusion that I had. As a student in the sixties when the topic came up he said, “Divorce is always wrong,” and was never challenged in saying it. Later, as a professor, he views that ironclad statement as representing “a cultural assumption of those days.” What changed? “In fact I was vastly ignorant of the things men and women do to one another.” And that’s exactly what I wrote about in Enough is Enough, after hearing firsthand the stories of what some wives had been put through. (And I recognize that sometimes husbands are put through agonizing meanness and infidelity as well.)
Moses permitted divorce because of the meanness of our hearts. That permission remains today; I don’t believe Jesus was overturning that, rightly understood, but he’s at the same time giving us the vision of a new heart, a new spirit, a new mindset and a new way of relating whereby two people can become the kind of couple that aren’t mean to each other; they sacrificially love and serve and cherish each other, and there will never be the need or even desire for divorce.
Under this rubric, more than we call out divorce, we should preach against the cause of divorce. That doesn’t make us easy on divorce; it simply makes us more effective in preventing it. Prevent the cause, and you prevent the occurrence.
And that’s how Sacred Marriage and When to Walk Away harmonize. If we grow in marriage, in spite of our sins, marriage can be the very tool that helps us become the kind of people who neither seek nor desire a divorce. Divorce should become less and less likely as we continue to grow through the trials of marriage, because we’re letting our marriage refine us and shape us into people who feel increasingly at home in the kingdom of goodness. When someone refuses to grow but in fact uses the marriage as a toxic tool of destruction, we might be forced to walk away, but even that walk must be an act of love, not an act of malice.
Unfortunately, the church isn’t known—today or historically—for doing nuance very well. People harden on both sides. For the sake of truly hurting souls who need to be free and don’t need to be placed under false guilt, and for the sake of those who will do great harm to themselves, their reputation, and even the testimony of the church if they simply seek to escape the challenges of a normally difficult or boring marriage, we must recover this nuance. But it begins with preaching the beauty and promise of the good life more than we preach the law of what is forbidden.
This is partly why I felt led by God to write Cherish. It’s not just about getting people to stay married, but to act married in the fullest sense of the term: surrendered to God and dedicated to each other’s welfare in the Lord.