The Bill Of Divorce
“The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord.” —I Corinthians 7:39
IN THE PAST SEVERAL WEEKS, I’ve probably seen 100 emails just like the following, and it concerns me:
Frances, please help me. I had a preacher tell me that I needed to leave my Christian husband of 18 years and go back to the spouse that I was married to. He abused me for years, and almost killed me before I got saved. I was raised in an atheist home, and my second husband brought me the truth of the gospel, and I don’t understand how the church can teach that type of doctrine. If I leave my husband and remarry my first husband, I’m damned, because he almost killed me. And if I kill him, and he is dead, then I’m released (the church is saying) to remarry. This seems crazy to me. So what is it—I can’t leave my abusive husband and marry a good man unless my first husband is dead?
Apparently we have preachers out there telling people like this dear lady to leave her stable, Christian marriage and go back to her first husband, who almost killed her. Where in the world is the wisdom in that? Yet that’s the counsel going out from the pulpit today. You have these so-called ministers squeezing the life out of verses like I Corinthians 7:39, when the truth is that death alone does not free a person from divorce.
People divorce for many reasons. Family law practitioners report that a divorce happens every 36 seconds in the United States, most of them crumbling under the stresses of money problems, poor communication, and addictions. Sadly, these statistics include believers.
Some Christian marriages do break up for the biblically sound reasons of fornication or spiritual desertion, but it’s safe to say that most believers divorce for other, common, reasons.
So what is a divorced Christian to do? Is a wife bound by law as long as her husband lives? Does that husband need to be dead before she can move on and remarry? The answer is no. It would be silly for someone who is happily remarried to try and re-enter a marriage that broke down years before. Let’s face it, there are some things in life that you just can’t go back and fix. And if any kind of abuse is involved, divorce is, most likely, inevitable. The Lord does not expect a woman to stay in a marriage where she or her children are beaten and mistreated.
But I want to tell you something that you won’t hear from many pastors these days: God recognizes divorce.
In the same way that He recognizes a legal marriage between two unbelievers (who may later get saved), God also recognizes the legal divorce of Christian husbands and wives, even if the reason for the breakup was “irreconcilable differences.”
Hear me out: The reasons why two people choose to divorce make little difference to God because the root of those reasons is really just one—sin.
God knows that whether a wife commits adultery, or a husband is abusive, or if both spouses are addicted to drugs, the real cause of divorce is sin, and sin always causes separation from God. That’s what He cares about, and that’s why He sent His Son to pay our sin debt and reconcile us to God. However, in the matter of divorce, Satan wants more than separation; he also wants to destroy what God has joined together.
Jesus said, “Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, and said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (Mat. 19:4-6).
Divorce does the opposite of this verse; it’s the Devil’s way of undoing everything that God joins together in holy matrimony. In the process of division, divorce severely damages two things: It breaks the marriage covenant, which involves lawful matters; and it breaks the human heart, which involves the spirit.
Since Old Testament days, man’s answer to divorce hasn’t much changed. Women had no say in the matter, so men wanting out of marriage were required to give a bill of divorcement. A wife who was no longer wanted was simply “put away.”
Sounds final doesn’t it? That’s because man only knows how to deal with the legalities of divorce. People misunderstand that all the pain leading up to a divorce ends with a legal document of dissolution, but anyone who has experienced one knows that’s simply not true.
In fact, people who have suffered both the death of a spouse and a divorce say that divorce is worse because unlike a death, divorce offers no emotional finality. They’ve experienced the aftershocks that shake a person’s ability to love and trust other people—including the Lord.
As well, a divorced person suffers the stigma of failure that society associates with divorce. Most people are forgiving of one divorce, perhaps two. But a person who has married and divorced three or more times is labeled in his circle as having something wrong with him.
Imagine, then, someone who has endured the pain of five broken marriages. How does the Lord look on such a person? In John 4, the Holy Spirit shows us: “Then cometh he to a city of Samaria, which is called Sychar, near to the parcel of ground that Jacob gave to his son Joseph. Now Jacob’s well was there. Jesus therefore, being wearied with his journey, sat thus on the well: and it was about the sixth hour” (Jn. 4:5-6).
The Lord waited for her at the well. He saw the Samaritan woman coming, carrying her pitcher, just as she had done every other day. She had been married five times, the Son of God knew this. He also knew exactly how each of her marriages had ended.
The Bible doesn’t tell us how the five husbands left this woman, but apparently at least one of them divorced her, otherwise she would have been identified as a widow only.
When Jesus said to her, “Give me to drink,” she, surprised that He even spoke to her, replied, “How is it that you, being a Jew, asks drink of me, which am a woman of Samaria?”
Here we see the effects of her calloused heart, numb from the many hurts she suffered through five broken relationships, each husband taking with him a measure of this woman’s hope and trust. When she hears Jesus speak, all that surfaces in her is a somewhat sarcastic question: “How is it that you …?”
This is the question of the Christian heart divided by divorce: How? How is it, Lord, that You are speaking to me? And yet we see the Lord not only speaking to this Samaritan woman, but He’s about to reveal to her a truth that He withheld even from Nicodemus.
Jesus, anointed to heal the brokenhearted and set at liberty them that are bruised, addresses her spiritual condition first with a conditional word—if. He said, “If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water.”
She’s interested in this living water but has questions. First, she wants to know “from whence?” Those who have suffered abuse and abandonment know how difficult it is to draw enough from a deep well just to make it through each day. They, too, want to know, “From where, Lord, comes this spring of life, this hope for me?”
Next, the woman asks Jesus, with some degree of disbelief, “Art thou greater?” Her faith in self has been all but destroyed by circumstances, yet with every word He speaks to her, a new faith in Him begins to build.
As this incredible conversation continues, the Lord answers her: “Whosoever drinketh of this water.” Whosoever. Yes, even this woman, with her moral reputation in ruins is included—and invited—to partake of the life that Jesus offers.
Now, with this woman not only interested in, but also wanting this living water, the Lord will deal with her sin. As my husband notes, “A profession of faith in Christ that ignores the question of sin, the holiness of God, the need of pardon, and the condition of trust in an atoning and revealed Saviour is worthless.”
The Lord tells her to go call her husband, and she answers, “I have no husband.”
Bible scholar Charles Ellicott says of this verse: “It lays bare to her own consciousness the past and present life, but she does not know that it is laid bare to His. The reply is no longer prefaced by the half-sarcastic ‘Thou, being a Jew,’ or the reverential ‘Sir.’ The tone has passed from vivacity to earnestness, and from earnestness to sadness.”
Something I think the church needs reminded of is that divorce is extremely sad. It’s sad for the husband, for the wife, and especially sad for any children involved as their world is literally torn in two.
The woman offers only a partial truth about her life, but Jesus now tells her the whole truth: “Thou hast well said, I have no husband: For thou hast had five husbands; and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband: in that saidst thou truly.”
With three words—thou has had—the Lord both recognizes and finalizes her five broken relationships. Jesus did not tell her to go back to her first husband, or her second husband, or her third husband, or the fourth, or the fifth. The Lord wanted this woman to be truthful about her past, not revive or relive it.
God does not condone divorce; He hates it just as He hates all sin. But my concern is for those who are divorced and think that God hates them, too. If that’s you, then think on this: In the 22-verse conversation between the Lord Jesus Christ and the Samaritan woman, He only spends three of them discussing her marital status.
Jesus was far more concerned with saving this lost soul who was hungry for God but could not be satisfied by the false worship of her religion. This is why the Bible said of Jesus, “He must needs go through Samaria.” He met this broken woman at the parcel of ground that Jacob gave to his son Joseph, which refers to blessing. Israel, before he died told Joseph, “Moreover I have given to thee one portion above thy brethren.” (Gen. 48:22).
This Samaritan woman, calloused from carrying so much sin in her life, encountered Christ and eventually received a portion above her brethren when Jesus said, “I that speak unto thee am he.” Then she went on to be the first woman preacher to the Gentile nations.
If you’re divorced, God still loves you, He will forgive you, and He will still use you to help others into the kingdom. But first, let Jesus speak to your heart. He’s waiting for you at the well.