Commit to Your Marriage — Do Not Divorce
(Part 1 of a Bible study on commitment, God, and divorce)
Doug Britton, MFT
This is part one of a two-part online Bible study on marriage, God, and divorce. Also read part two, “Reject Unscriptural Reasons for Divorce.”
Bible study on God and divorce — Introduction
God’s definition of marriage, which sets it apart from all other relationships, is that a man and a woman become “one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). God intended marriage to be the most intimate of human relationships.
People sometimes describe marriage as a contract, sometimes as a covenant, and sometimes as a partnership. There’s truth in all of these descriptions. Yet the deeper truth is the reality that you are “one.” You cannot get any closer to another person than by being one.
The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.” For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. (Genesis 2:23-24)
Has not the LORD made them one? In flesh and spirit they are his. (Malachi 2:15)
Complete commitment to your marriage provides a foundation of dependability and trust. It takes you through tough times and steers you toward godly solutions. A lack of commitment erodes your strength, determination, and resourcefulness. It can lead to tragedy.
Marriage can be compared to a marathon race. If you don’t commit yourself to running the distance, your chances of dropping out along the way increase. But if you are determined, you will find unforeseen strength to overcome every obstacle.
Related: Eight keys to a great marriage
God’s commands — marriage and divorce
The Bible says that when two are joined together in marriage, they are no longer two, but one (Genesis 2:23-24 and Mark 10:8), and that God hates divorce. You and your spouse are “one” no matter how poorly your marriage is functioning. Divorce, in God’s eyes, is not an option except in specific situations—and even then, forgiveness and rebuilding are usually best.
Study these Scriptures to see how serious the Lord is about divorce:
“I hate divorce,” says the LORD God of Israel. (Malachi 2:16)
What God has joined together, let man not separate … I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery. (Matthew 19:6, 9)
Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery. (Mark 10:11-12)
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. (1 Corinthians 7:12-13)
My wife and I would probably not be married today if God allowed divorce. Early in our marriage, there were times when each of us wanted out. But after we became Christians, neither of us sought divorce because we knew it was sinful. This knowledge held us together through difficult times and pushed us to improve our marriage. Now, as we enjoy a happy marriage, we are grateful for God’s commands against divorce. We needed them.
Related: Focus on changes you should make
Don’t rebel against God
It is hard to overstate how much God hates divorce. Jesus said that to divorce for unscriptural reasons and then remarry is to commit adultery. Yet many people who profess Christianity play games with God by divorcing and then cruising along as if God did not mind. They often continue to attend church and engage in “spiritual” activities or ministries, thinking everything is fine. They look good on the outside. But read what God says about them:
You flood the Lord’s altar with tears. You weep and wail because he no longer pays attention to your offerings or accepts them with pleasure from your hands. You ask, “Why?” It is because 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. (Malachi 2:13-14)
In other words, if you divorce for unscriptural reasons, you drive a wedge between yourself and God, for you are rebelling against him.
Realize that divorce has consequences
Unscriptural divorce almost always brings painful consequences. Not only do you distance yourself from God when you divorce, you also damage your spouse, wound your children, injure other family members, hurt friends, set the stage for future pain for yourself, and bring shame upon the name of Christ.
When you do things God’s way, things work out best. On the other hand, when you disobey God, problems eventually come. If you divorce for unscriptural reasons, the odds are high that you will regret it before you die. You are certain to regret it when you stand before God.
Never say, “Let’s divorce”
Suggesting divorce without scriptural reasons opens the door to sin. When you are broke you would never say, “Let’s rob a bank.” Along the same lines, when you are unhappy, do not say, “Let’s divorce,” “I don’t see why we should stay married,” or “You’d be better off without me.”
God and divorce — Does God ever allow divorce?
Although the Bible stresses the importance and permanence of marriage, it permits divorce in two circumstances.
1. Divorce is allowed for sexual immorality.
Jesus said you may divorce if your spouse is sexually unfaithful. Notice, however, that he did not command you to divorce. He merely said it’s permissible.
I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery. (Matthew 19:9)
Jesus said God only allowed divorce in the Old Testament because of the hardness of our hearts (Matthew 19:8). Some people think this means Christians never should divorce since Jesus took away our hard hearts when we were born again. However, this contradicts what Jesus said in Matthew 19:9. He would not have given an exception unless he meant it.
However, it is usually better to rebuild a marriage than divorce. There are many marriages in which the offender asked for forgiveness, the betrayed partner forgave, and the two successfully rebuilt their relationship. The process was painful and involved hard work, but the results were worth the effort. God was glorified, and they ended up with great marriages.
2. Divorce is allowed if an unbeliever leaves.
If you are married to an unbeliever, it is God’s desire for you to stay married (1 Corinthians 7:12-14, 16 and 1 Peter 3:1-6). However, if your unbelieving spouse leaves, you “are not bound.”
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. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances. (1 Corinthians 7:12-15)
Divorce is not permitted for “emotional desertion.”
Some say the previous verses justify divorce even if their spouse doesn’t physically leave home. They state they are free to divorce if their mate has been unpleasant, financially irresponsible, sexually unavailable, or emotionally removed. How do they come to such a conclusion? By saying that their spouse “left” or “deserted” them emotionally.
Such logic twists the clear meaning of the previous passage, not to mention God’s commands throughout the New Testament. Paul was writing about leaving physically. We all are married to imperfect spouses and at one time or another could justify divorce because of “emotional desertion.” Let me invite you to read Part 2 of this study on God and divorce, Reject Unscriptural Reasons for Divorce.
Are there any other times God allows divorce?
The guidelines in this online Bible study on commitment, God, and divorce cover the vast majority of the reasons people consider divorce. However, there may be times when it’s hard to know what to do.
For example, if your mate is jailed for physically abusing you, this could qualify as a time when divorce is permissible since your unbelieving spouse left you. (Never accept physical abuse as okay. Take action to protect yourself. For example, move out of the situation, call the police, get a restraining order, file for legal separation.)
If you are unsure about your circumstances, talk with a wise pastor or counselor—someone committed to helping you discover how God’s word applies in your situation, not someone whose basic philosophy is, “If you’re unhappy, divorce.”
What if you have already divorced?
If you divorced for unbiblical reasons, particularly if you were a Christian when you did so, don’t pretend that divorcing your spouse wasn’t sinful or that it somehow was okay with God.
I am concerned for Christians who divorce for unscriptural reasons and are not willing to face their sin. When we choose to sin, we harden our hearts toward God and his commandments. Rather than genuinely confessing, we justify our actions. Some say, for example, “I know it was a sin, but it was the only thing I could do.” Or, “We live under grace, not law.” Or, “I knew it was wrong, but Jesus told me he would forgive me if I did it.”
It was not Jesus who told them it was okay to divorce. He commanded us not to divorce and added that if we divorce for unscriptural reasons and remarry, we commit adultery (Matthew 19:9).
The Bible uses stinging words to describe those who justify sin by saying “We live under grace.” Remember Jude’s words:
They are godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord. (Jude 1:4)
Walt, a man I counseled, said he knew the Bible condemns divorce, but he planned to divorce Shelly anyway because “God is a forgiving God.” Shelly protested the divorce and wrote him letters pleading for another chance. His response, even as he went through the divorce proceedings, was to give her angry speeches, saying she must forgive him because she was a Christian. He divorced her, married another woman, and now attends church where he tells people that Shelly divorced him.
Let’s look at another couple: Margaret told her husband Richard she intended to divorce him and then marry a man who was divorcing his wife. She said they planned to approach their church and ask for forgiveness after marrying. She clearly was playing games with God and choosing to rebel against his word. Her planned “repentance” was a sham.
In part 2 of this series on commitment and divorce, you can read many more rationalizations people give for divorce.
Don’t justify sin. God is not impressed by our excuses.
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. (2 Corinthians 5:10)
If you divorced your spouse for unscriptural reasons and you both are Christians, you should probably pursue restoration of your marriage if neither of you has remarried. Seek counsel from a Bible-believing pastor before you make a decision.
If you were a Christian when you divorced and have married someone else, confess that you started in sin. If you truly confess, Christ will forgive you (1 John 1:9) and help you deal with the mess you created. By truly confess, I mean to (1) genuinely face the awfulness of the sin of divorcing and (2) acknowledge that if you could make the decision again you would not divorce.
After confessing your sin, do not divorce your present spouse to remarry your previous mate. You cannot undo the effect of sin by sinning again.
There is hope in the Lord, even in this ungodly situation. When we disobey God’s word, we suffer. But when we honestly and humbly confess our sins, Christ helps us put the past behind and press on. As Paul wrote:
Forgetting what is behind, and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:13-14)
However, don’t be nonchalant about “forgetting what is behind.” You have harmed others and need to do what you can to promote healing. You should consider apologizing to your ex-spouse, children, close friends and church. When you offer an apology, don’t make excuses. Respond with understanding, patience, and love if others do not forgive you.
Let me close this section of this Bible study by offering the example of my wife and myself as an encouragement. We married because she was pregnant. We started our marriage in a bad way and suffered many unpleasant consequences. However, we eventually turned to God and confessed our sins. Although we had to deal with the consequences, we also experienced the grace of God and have enjoyed an ever-growing and deeply satisfying marriage. When you genuinely confess your sins, God can build mansions out of ashes.
Related: More Bible studies on marriage and divorce
There is hope in the Lord
There are many steps you can take to create a better marriage. Read Eight Keys to a Great Marriage, for practical “insights” that can transform your relationship, or read a book in the “Marriage by the Book” series.
God loves you and wants the best for you. As you read the Bible and grow in the Lord, you will discover principles to help you live with satisfaction and joy regardless of your situation. You will also learn many ways to transform an unsatisfying marriage into a great one.
More Bible Studies
About Doug Britton, MFT
Doug Britton, Bible-based Marriage and Family Therapist, has helped hundreds of thousands of people as a therapist, clinical director of a treatment center, seminar speaker, radio cohost, and author of over twenty books that show how to apply God's truths in your daily life. (Visit www.dougbrittonbooks.com.)
Copyright © 2020 Doug Britton. Permission granted to print for personal use. (Scripture verses are from the New International Version, copyright © 1984.) See reprint policy.