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“Is divorce ever God’s will?” is a question none of us ever wants to have to ask.
We don’t marry expecting our marriage to end in divorce. It’s not what we wish for our friends’ marriages, or our parents’, or anyone around us. But we are broken people in a broken world; the reality is that divorce is commonplace – not only in secular relationships, but in the Christian world too.
So is divorce ever God’s will?
We’re going to go on a whistle-stop tour of Scripture to try and understand better the complexities surrounding this painful area. We’ll look at the conditions under which divorce was allowed in the Old Testament, why Jesus preached against divorce in the New Testament, and what a Biblical understanding of marriage and divorce might look like today, in the twenty-first century.
Is divorce ever God’s will?
I mean – if we were going ask the question “Is divorce God’s will?”, then of course we’d have to say no, right?
Divorce can be the cause of great hurt for everyone involved. Besides the emotional hurt caused to both parties (plus children, if they have them), divorce increases the risk of financial poverty, loneliness, stress and anxiety. It may have a knock-on effect to future relationships too.
Why would this be God’s will?
Our God is not cruel or vindictive; He doesn’t cause us pain and hurt, nor does He want to see others cause us pain and hurt.
He is the total opposite. God is love. He longs to comfort us and heal us and provide for us.
But hear me out: it is not God’s will for us to be hurt in marriage either. So when we pop that word “ever” in there – “Is divorce ever God’s will?” – I think the question becomes more complex.
And this is the crunch point.
Because while a divorce may be difficult, painful and expensive, for some couples it is still better than remaining in the marriage. If the husband or wife (or both) are no longer keeping their marital vows, then – very sadly – the marriage is effectively over already.
I really hope that you are not in this situation, because I know from the experience of friends that it’s a horrible place to be. But if you are, then I hope you will find compassionate, thoughtful Bible discussion in this blog post, which will help you decide – with God – how to proceed.
What does God say about divorce?
Ever since God created marriage, there has been marital strife. The first recorded marital disagreement was between Adam and Eve in Genesis 3, where Adam blames Eve for persuading him to eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge.
Genesis 16 records marital conflict between Abram and Sarai, Genesis 27 tells of how Rebekah tricked her husband Isaac by using their son Jacob, and in Genesis 30, we’re witnesses to Jacob and Rachel’s angry words to one another. And that’s only the first book of the Bible!
Marital difficulties are not news to God. Our sin saddens Him, but it doesn’t shock Him.
So when we first read about divorce in Leviticus 21, where God (through Moses) is giving commandments to His people for how to live, it’s no surprise that He has enabled divorce to happen where marriages are not working out.
Divorce outlined in the Old Testament is clearly not God’s will, but it is God’s allowance: an act of grace for when His people have fallen short of His standards for marriage.
So is divorce ever God’s will?
Where in the Bible does it talk about divorce and adultery?
There are seven places in the Bible that talk about divorce (with/without adultery):
- Leviticus 21
- Deuteronomy 22
- Malachi 2
- Matthew 5
- Matthew 19
- Mark 10 (the same incident as recounted in Matthew 19)
- 1 Corinthians 7
Let’s take a look at each of these, starting with the Old Testament.
What can we learn about divorce from the Old Testament?
Divorce in the Old Testament is spoken about both as a part of life but also something not to be used lightly.
It is described as a part of life in Leviticus 21, where God is commanding priests not to marry divorced women. Reading further, we see that the group of women priests are forbidden to marry include prostitutes and widows – so it is clearly not a matter of sin, but virginity. Priests are supposed to marry women who are virgins (v13) – a command repeated in Ezekiel 44:22.
So divorce here is not spoken about in terms of sin, it is simply taken for granted as a fact of life: some people will get divorced.
Divorce is then described as something not to be used lightly in Deuteronomy 22, a difficult passage containing laws surrounding marriage, divorce and rape.
Whilst these words sound pretty harsh to our culture, we must remember that within the patriarchal culture of Israel at this time, God was actually putting in safeguards for women.
Marriage protected women in that culture. It gave them financial stability, and the security of a father for their children. Without marriage, women would find themselves struggling to find work and feed themselves and any children they might have.
So this explains why a man who raped a woman was obliged to marry her and was not permitted to divorce her (v29). Men were also not permitted to divorce women who they’d accused of not being virgins when they were (v19).
God refused to let men take the fun part of sex without the responsibility that came from it – yes children, but also a lifelong commitment to that woman, whose chances of marrying would now be slimmer if he didn’t marry her.
And, because God doesn’t change, I believe He is still angry today about the injustice of men who abuse their wives or evade their responsibility as husbands and fathers.
In several parts of the Old Testament, we read that a certificate of divorce had to be given to any woman whose husband divorced her. He couldn’t just run off and leave her: he had to go through a procedure – presumably at some cost to himself – in order to give her some proof of her new status.
Finally, Malachi has some interesting thoughts on divorce in chapter 2, using it as a metaphor for how Judah has been unfaithful (or ‘divorced from’) the LORD. The chapter ends with this verse:
“The man who hates and divorces his wife,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect,” says the Lord Almighty. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful.Malachi 2:16
So, again, we see that marriage was, in part, designed to protect women. Divorce was only accepted in some circumstances, and certainly not just because a man felt like it.
It’s also important to remember that in most cases around this time, it would be a man divorcing a woman – not the other way round. It would be pretty difficult, maybe impossible, for most women to divorce their husbands. They’d have to have a decent income or inheritance of their own.
What’s changed about marriage and divorce?
Before we look at the New Testament teachings on divorce, let’s stop and reflect on the Old Testament culture versus our own.
If one of marriage’s functions in Israel’s patriarchal BC culture was to protect women, then we need to ask ourselves: does it perform this same function today?
In many ways, it does. Marriage pools income, so in a healthy, functioning marriage, women (and men) will be better off than if they were on their own. Marriage can provide much-needed mutual support in the workplace – both husband and wife can be encouraged to succeed in their careers, go for promotions and so on, with the cheerleading support of their spouse. And of course marriage can make the job of raising children far easier, with two parents sharing this role, and no complications of split weekends or holidays to contend with.
But for women in abusive, controlling marriages, the covenant of marriage does nothing to protect them. In fact, they need laws and safeguards to protect them from their marriage – because it is certainly not functioning as God intended.
In this case, divorce (or at least separation) provides protection.
I think we need to take this seriously. As Sheila Wray Gregoire often says, “God loves those in a marriage more than He loves the marriage itself”.
We will return to the subject of divorce in a situation of abuse, but for now, let’s remember that God’s desire is to protect both women and men. In answer to the question “Is divorce ever God’s will?”, I think the Bible shows us that, in a case of abuse, yes it is.
What Jesus said about divorce
Jesus first spoke on divorce as part of his famous Sermon on the Mount:
“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.Matthew 5:31-32
Wow! Where the Israelites used to be able to divorce for several reasons, here Jesus is giving them just one: sexual immorality. In other words, the only reason a divorce is permitted in the eyes of God is if your spouse has had an affair.
In Matthew 19 (and also Mark 10), some Pharisees approach Jesus and ask him specifically about divorce: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” (v3)
Interestingly, Jesus’ response begins with the sanctity of marriage:
“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘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 flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”Matthew 19:4-6
This last sentence is commonly read out at Christian weddings. Jesus is encouraging those listening to consider the high calling of marriage. In a sense, he is arguing that if two people have this idea of marriage from the start, then divorce is less likely to be seen as an option.
The Pharisees then ask why Moses commanded men to issue certificates of divorce to their wives. Jesus’ response confirms what we’ve already absorbed from the Old Testament:
“Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.“Matthew 19:8
In other words – divorce would be a part of life, but it was not God’s best for them. Having witnessed friends and family go through divorce, I can vouch for the pain and heartache it causes. God would be a mean God indeed if this was his ‘best’ for us.
Jesus goes on to confirm what he’s already said in Matthew 5:
“I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”Matthew 19:9
As a result of this exchange, the disciples respond with: “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry” – to which Jesus essentially agrees. Again, the high calling of marriage is the focus here.
Perhaps, in our culture of ‘happy-ever-after’ romances, too many people are pressured to get married when, in fact, it is not something they will find easy. Maybe not as many of us are called to marry as we like to think.
But, if we already are married, and our spouse has broken their marital covenant with us by sleeping with someone else, is divorce ever God’s will? Yes, this is allowed according to the teachings of Jesus. It may not be God’s perfect plan for our lives, but under the circumstances, divorce is allowed in order to free us from an adulterous marriage.
(Note – it is possible to return to a happy, healthy marriage after an affair, so I’m not suggesting divorce is the only solution here, but it is certainly allowed in Scripture if required.)
What Paul said about divorce
The only other time divorce is mentioned in the New Testament is in 1 Corinthians 7, where Paul gives teaching concerning marriage, sex and divorce. First of all, he confirms Jesus’ own teaching in Matthew 19:
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.1 Corinthians 7:10-11
In fact, you could even argue that Paul’s teaching is more strict, as he doesn’t mention sexual immorality as grounds for divorce. Although perhaps in the context (where Paul has just been teaching about a husband and wife’s sexual responsibility to each other), this is not quite so necessary.
Interestingly, Paul then goes on to give a further reason for divorce, one which Jesus never mentioned:
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 it be so.1 Corinthians 7:12-13, 15
Jesus wouldn’t have needed to mention this, because his ministry was primarily to Jewish men and women who would have shared the same faith.
But Paul was ministering at the heart of the massive explosion of new converts in the early church. His audience includes those who have come from both Jewish and Gentile backgrounds to a saving faith in Jesus Christ. Presumably, there would have been many in the churches he was writing to (and perhaps this was a particular issue in Corinth?) who had come to faith, yet whose spouses had not.
Allowing for a non-believing spouse to walk away from marriage to someone who had professed a new faith gave the very clear message that although marriage was important, it was not as important as one’s primary calling of faithfulness to Jesus Christ.
If your actions as a believer were such that your unbelieving spouse could not remain in the marriage, it was better to allow them to walk away than to compromise your faith.
Is divorce ever God’s will? Where an unbelieving spouse walks away from a believing spouse then yes, I think we can agree that this is Biblically sound. Not necessarily God’s best, but God’s allowance for a less-than-ideal situation.
What are the three Biblical reasons for divorce?
Taking all of these passages together, we discover that there are three Biblical reasons for divorce:
- Abuse (based on the protective function of marriage outlined in Deuteronomy 22 and Malachi 2)
- Adultery (Matthew 5, Matthew 19)
- Abandonment (when a non-believing spouse walks away – 1 Corinthians 7)
Under ‘abandonment’, it’s important to note that this can sometimes include situations where a formerly-believing spouse starts to drift from their faith. In fact, in almost all the Christian marriages I know of which ended in divorce, either the husband or wife was wavering in their faith.
Is virtual infidelity a ground for divorce?
In the 21st century, this is a highly relevant question. Whilst the Bible doesn’t speak directly into this issue (for obvious reasons), it still has important truths to tell us which we can apply to virtual infidelity.
In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, he says these challenging words concerning adultery:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”Matthew 5:27-28
Jesus is broadening the definition of adultery to include not just the physical act of having sex with someone you’re not married to, but the thought of wanting to have sex with that person.
Is divorce ever God’s will? Since virtual infidelity involves thoughts (at the very least – and often much more), I think we can safely say that virtual infidelity is a ground for divorce. Again – not God’s ideal for our lives, but an act of grace to free us from a marriage of infidelity.
The challenge, however, is proving it. Online activity can be very easy to mask – and the nature of our virtual interactions mean that it’s not always possible to detect the depth of a relationship.
Is divorce ever God’s will if I’m unhappy in my marriage?
It’s entirely possible, of course, to be utterly miserable in marriage without any of the above grounds for divorce being evident. No one has had an affair, no one is being abusive, and no one has walked out on grounds of differing faith beliefs.
I think there are two important things to remember here:
1. Happiness is a cultural expectation – not a Biblical one
Happiness is not mentioned as a fruit of the Spirit, and Jesus doesn’t use this word either, calling us ‘blessed’ rather than ‘happy’ (Matthew 5).
Emphasis in both Jesus’ teaching, and the further teaching found in the New Testament, focuses on peace, contentment and joy – all of which are found in God, not in our circumstances. In fact, Paul said “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” (Philippians 4:12)
So if we are unhappy in our marriages, we need to ask ourselves: where are we seeking our peace, joy and contentment? Are we expecting our spouse to fulfil a role that isn’t theirs to fulfil? Only God can truly ‘complete’ us. The more we lean into God for our joy, the less we will rely on our marriages for happiness.
This doesn’t mean to say that you shouldn’t try and iron out any difficulties in marriage. But if you’re struggling to encourage your spouse to come with you to counselling, or you’re in the middle of a painful process of working on your marriage, please be encouraged that you don’t need to wait for the perfect marriage before you can know true joy in Christ.
2. Happiness can grow
In addition, research by the Marriage Foundation suggests that unhappy marriages which don’t end in divorce are more likely to end up becoming happy marriages.
The research looked at couples who stated they were unhappy around the birth of their first child. Out of the 7 in 10 couples who stayed together, a whopping 68% stated they were ‘happy’ ten years later – and an additional 27% stated they were ‘extremely happy’ in marriage.
The research states that “too many couples are giving up on their marriages before they have given them a chance to succeed” and Marriage Foundation founder Harry Benson was quoted as saying:
Contrary to popular belief, staying in an unhappy marriage could be the best thing you ever do. Most marriages have their unhappy moments, but apart from the…cases where the relationship involves abuse, most couples can work through the difficulties to be happy later on.Harry Benson, Marriage Foundation
Should I get divorced?
Only you can answer this one. I hope this post on “Is divorce ever God’s will?” has been useful in outlining the Bible’s teaching in this area – but that you also remember God loves you (and your spouse) more than He loves your marriage.
God created marriage for immense good – but, like the rest of His creation, we have stained it with our bad choices and selfish acts. If you have done, or are doing, everything you can to work on the marriage and forgive your spouse’s actions, yet they will not repent and change their behaviour, then I believe God gives you grace to allow your marriage to end.
If you are going through an unhappy period of your marriage, I challenge you to act to turn things around. It’s not too late! Speak to your spouse – or, if you can’t, ask a trusted mutual friend to act as mediator. Seek counselling. Read a marriage book or blog. Ask a church leader or trusted church friend to pray with you and for you.
Will God forgive me if I divorce and remarry?
Yes! God’s nature is always to forgive when we turn to Him in true repentance.
If our divorce was on the grounds of adultery, abandonment or abuse (as outlined above), or if it happened before we came to faith and developed a Biblical understanding of marriage, then we have absolutely nothing to fear. God is rich in mercy and love, and His forgiveness never ends.
If our marriage ended outside these grounds for Biblical divorce, then I still believe God forgives all of us who come to Him in true repentance. In other words: it is important that we recognise our part in the ending of our marriage, repent to God (and our ex-spouse, if appropriate) and know His forgiveness.
In terms of remarriage, I would ask the following questions:
- Did my first marriage end because of abuse, adultery or abandonment? If so, am I as confident as I can be that the person I wish to marry is neither an adulterer, an abuser or someone who doesn’t share my faith?
- Did my first marriage end before I was a Christian? If so, does the person I wish to marry share my new-found faith? Do we have a shared understanding of the high calling God places on those who are married?
- Did my first marriage end for a different reason? If so, have I acknowledged the role I played in this? Have I repented? Am I as confident as I can be that I am approaching my second marriage with a renewed understanding of Biblical marriage?
These questions won’t cover every situation, but I hope they provide a helpful starting point for anyone considering remarriage.
Marriage is a high calling
You can’t read the Bible without realising that the standard God calls us to in marriage is pretty tough.
If it weren’t, why would Paul be moved to say: “Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do” (1 Corinthians 7:8)? Paul obviously understood that marriage was tough, and that people should only enter into it if they were really committed to lay their life down for their partner for life.
Biblical marriage requires sacrifice (Ephesians 5:25), submission (Ephesians 5:21), selflessness (Ephesians 5:28) and a rearrangement of priorities (Ephesians 5:31).
None of these things are particularly popular in our culture, so it’s no wonder that we struggle with them when we enter into marriage.
For more on submission, check out my post Should you be submitting to your husband when you don’t agree?
And if you’re reading this in the enviable position of being in a happy marriage, please don’t take this for granted! Marital problems often build gradually and surreptitiously over time. Perhaps these questions would be helpful for you to consider:
- How are you taking steps to actively build and grow your relationship with your spouse?
- How do you tackle the small issues in your marriage to ensure they don’t grow to something much more significant?
I hope this post on “Is divorce ever God’s will?” has been helpful to you.
What is your take on the Biblical teaching on divorce? Do you have experience of God freeing you from an abusive or adulterous spouse through divorce? Let’s chat in the comments!