A wife asked her husband over a candlelight dinner, “If I die, will you remarry?” “Probably,” the man replied rather matter-of-factly. “Will you live in the same house?” the wife asked. “Probably,” the man repeated. “Well,” the increasingly irritated woman asked, “Will you give her my jewelry?” “Probably,” he said. “My car?” “Probably.” “My clothes?” “Probably.” “My golf clubs?” “No,” the man answered, “She’s left-handed.”
That story would be a lot funnier if so many folks didn’t relate to it. As it is, that story strikingly illustrates the duplicity — double-minded, double-tongued, double-dealing, deceptiveness — that plagues modern marriages.
“Couples marry with joy, hope, and promises of ’till death do us part,'” observed James M. Efird (Marriage and Divorce, 1985), “but all too frequently they end the marriage citing ‘irreconcilable differences,’ ‘unfaithfulness,’ ‘incompatibility,’ and many more reasons.” Or as Eric Felack recently said to me, “Marriage is like flies on a screen. Fifty percent want in. Fifty percent want out.”
It’s hard to believe the same couples who gawk and giggle during courting days to nauseating degrees become so caustic and cruel in the courts that end their relationships. It’s no wonder one band leader told his musicians before every wedding reception, “Always play your best because one out of every five brides gets married again.”
Too many legal bills follow too quickly after wedding bells. We’ve heard the sad song Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand sang:
You don’t say you need me.
You don’t sing me love songs.
You don’t bring me flowers anymore.
Gordon Lightfoot crooned, “I don’t know where we went wrong but the feeling’s gone and I just can’t get it back.” No wonder The Bridges of Madison County was so popular. It’s so real.
Divorce is a deadly disease. Not one of us is immune to its threat. One of my best friends went through a divorce about ten years ago. He came from a good home. His mom and dad enjoyed over 50 years of marriage. His brother was happily married. He didn’t believe in divorce. But as I’ve had to say too many times in my study. “It takes two to dance. I can’t make your spouse love you. I can’t make your spouse stay married to you. I can ask the right questions. I can offer some advice. We can pray. But when it’s all said and done, it takes two to make a marriage.”
My friend’s mom was against the marriage. I told him in seminary that nobody thought it would last. I suggested he bail out before accepting a call. But he got married and stayed married because he was committed to the marriage even though it became increasingly apparent that his wife had other things on her mind.
The whole idea of family took a back seat to her vocational goals, personal goals, and other selfish concerns. Indeed, church members often told my friend, “When your wife wants something, she’s really nice. But if she doesn’t want anything, she acts like we’re dirt under her feet.”
It wasn’t long before she got involved with another school teacher. A fellow about 20 years older came next. Then there was a guy about ten years younger. And then one day, she told my friend that she was filing for a divorce. My friend wasn’t all that broken up about it. Though he had sworn he would never file for a divorce, he was glad she did.
He became a great parent. He modified his entire life and ministry for his children. Friends and family who had distanced themselves from him because of her bridged the gap again. God blessed him with a wife who understands the primary call of a spouse — male or female — is to be a spouse. And he has lived happily ever after.
By the grace of God working through his new wife, family, friends, and church members, everything has turned out just fine for him. The pain of the past has been healed and he continues to move into the future with a renewed spirit.
Aware of Paul’s conclusion that anyone who serves the Lord must regard the family as her or his most fundamental call (see 1 Timothy 3), my friend’s life and ministry came together as he learned three valuable lessons about marriage and divorce:
1. Divorce is a failure.
2. God forgives failures.
3. Avoiding legal bills after wedding bells requires a plan to prevent failures.
I. Divorce is a failure.
It has been said, “Confession is good for the soul but bad for our reputation.” But while there will always be those holier-than-thou-speck-inspectors who see everybody’s problems but their own and conveniently forget our Lord’s warning about getting the measure that we give (
Divorce is a failure of judgment. Obviously, the wrong person was picked. If the right person had been picked, a lot of legal bills and personal woes would have been avoided.
I remember asking my friend why he couldn’t talk to his ex about things related to his children and so on. He snapped, “How can you expect me to work things out with her after the divorce when I couldn’t work things out with her before the divorce? If you haven’t guessed by now, we got divorced because we could never work things out.”
Karl Barth explained it this way (Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of Creation, 1961):
It may be that He has not called a specific couple to marriage, that the divine basis and constitution are lacking from the very outset, that in the judgment of God and according to His will and command, it has never become a married couple and lives as such. In this case, the partnership is radically dissoluble because there has been no real union in the judgment of God.
Simply, a divorce only occurs when a marriage never existed.
Translating this into practical terms, Gary W. Demarest wrote (Christian Alternatives Within Marriage, 1977):
I doubt that most Christians would flinch at calling divorce a sin. A few I have known treat it as though it were unforgivable–at least when it comes to someone else’s marriage. But I think it’s time we started affirming divorce as a gift of God. I’m not advocating the celebration of divorces…But I do believe there is a Biblical basis to recognize divorce as a gift from God.
I’ve chosen to call divorce a gift of God. This is not to say that divorce for any or every reason is acceptable. It does affirm the fact, however, that God makes a gracious provision for us to deal with irremediable, destructive situations in every relationship. This principle is reiterated in the context of
God meets us in our failure and sin with His mercy and love. I find nothing in Scripture that would require a man and woman to live together all of their lives only to perpetuate a relationship that had become destructive or dead.
Marriages made in heaven cannot be dissolved. When God puts something together, no one can pull it apart. A divorce only occurs when a marriage never existed.
Divorce is a failure because it means the couple did not take the time through prayer, counsel, and consultation with family and friends to discern whether there was a call from God into marriage. That’s why divorce is a sin. It is a rejection of God’s will for life. God doesn’t want us to suffer the consequences of bad judgment — living outside of His will for our lives. God wants the best for us. God wants His best for us. And when we choose less than His best, we suffer the lack of His blessing. God never blesses sin. God blesses us when we pray and work to live within His will for our lives.
II. God forgives failures.
One of the most startling revelations in my life occurred when I was a fifth grader at Lincoln Street School in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania.
As I was sitting in homeroom during lunch one day and gobbling down the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that my mom had packed for me, I noticed my homeroom teacher (Mr. Moore) had just taken out his false teeth to gum graham crackers to death. I looked over and saw Donna Markolevich making eyes at me. Donna and I had this thing going on. She would give me penny candy if I would go into the cloakroom and let her kiss me. I spotted Melvin Dudeck who was squirming in his seat again. That meant he was either about to form a puddle under his desk or expose himself to Tom Tamanini. Ernie Davidson was picking his nose. Bobby Biscontini had just ripped off somebody’s cupcakes. And Marilyn Jones who was in her third year of fifth grade started rubbing my back.
In the privacy of my own mind, I thought, “Everybody in here is screwed up.”
And then it hit me, “If everybody in here is messed up,” then I must be messed up too.” It was apocalyptic! It remains one of the most basic facts of life. Everybody is messed up, including you and me.
That’s one of the first things that I tell people who are having problems. I tell them that everybody has messed up in some way. Everybody has problems. Every family has problems. Every church has problems. All jobs, marriages, organizations, school boards, town councils, bowling teams, softball leagues, and so on have problems. Everybody and everything is screwed up in some way. That may not be the most sophisticated assessment of the human predicament, but it’s true nonetheless.
As Paul wrote, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (
And when we understand the inevitability of everybody messing up, that’s when we understand why God came in Jesus to save us. We need Someone to save us. We need Jesus. “For while we were still weak,” Paul wrote, “at the right time Christ died for the ungodly … God proves His love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (
The Gospel is very simple. Our failures are forgiven through faith in Jesus. God in Jesus saves us from the damning consequences of our own sin.
III. Avoiding legal bills after wedding bells requires a plan to prevent failure.
A little boy went to his uncle’s wedding. While driving to the reception, his mother asked if he understood what had just happened in church. “Well,” answered the little boy, “kinda. But I don’t know how he’s going to stay married to her.” “What do you mean?” his mother asked. “Well,” he went on, “you know when the preacher asked him some questions? He said yes when he was asked, ‘Do you take Nancy to be your awful wedded wife?'”
Though our Lord forgives our failures, the failure of divorce can be very, very very painful. It is awful in most cases. “When divorce occurs,” wrote Dr. Efird, “even where there is no genuinely religious basis for marriage, there are feelings of failure and guilt.”
Though God forgives our failures, His grace is not a license to sin or fail to live within His will for our lives. Moreover, He has provided a plan to prevent failures. Our Lord has provided a plan to avoid legal bills after wedding bells. The plan is to follow His lead as exemplified in Jesus, explained in the Bible, and enabled by the enlightening guidance of His Holy Spirit through prayer, counsel, family, and friends.
“The most obvious way to prevent divorce,” writes Gary Collins, “is to build stronger marriages — marriages based on scriptural principles and characterized by love, commitment and open communication.”
The plan for picking the right partner for life includes the following:
1. Pray for God’s clear discernment.
2. Seek confirmation of a specific call to marriage through personal feelings, counsel, family, and friends.
3. Make sure Jesus will be the head of the house.
And yet even Christians — women and men who have prayed and worked to marry the right person — make mistakes. Dr. Efird has a healing word for people who tried their best and still failed:
The New Testament exalts marriage and views divorce as failure. But as with other failings of the human race, by the grace of God people can be forgiven and allowed another chance to make things right.
Life teaches us many lessons. Through the pain of divorce, we learn three: (1) Divorce is a failure; (2) God forgives failures; and (3) Avoiding legal bills after wedding bells requires a plan to prevent failures.
But the most important lesson of all is God loves you anyway. God forgives you through faith in Jesus. Jesus takes your sins upon Himself and frees you from the past. He died proving it.
No matter who you are or what you’ve done or where you’ve been, God loves you. He will always love you.
That’s why Christianity is such good news.
There may be legal bills after wedding bells.
People always mess up.
But God in Jesus never stops loving.
It’s like Paul wrote, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”