Tuesday, April 9, 2019

More Than a Feeling

Someone recently sent me a great question on a topic where Christians have been dropping the ball too often over the past few generations.

I have been told by quite a few people that God is all right with them getting divorced because He “wants them to be happy.” Is that really what He wants?

As I look at that question, I realize there are actually two issues in it where Christians have been lax in recent years. The first, obvious one is divorce. I’m not here to say it is a simple issue, and I don’t want to be flippant. But honestly, that is part of the problem. Our society has a cavalier attitude towards marriage that has filtered into the church. Some people are very quick to jump to divorce. The majority still struggle with the decision. But far too many see divorce as “for the best” once a relationship fails to reach the potential they had in mind for it.

God's Plan for Marriage

That is very different from God’s design. He knows that sin has made this an imperfect world, and He has permitted divorce in recognition of that fact. This is something that Jesus carefully explains in Matt. 19:1–9. In the Law of Moses, divorce is introduced in Deut. 24:1. Jesus describes this particular command as being for the “hardness of your hearts” (Matt. 19:8), or in other words, because people can be evil. The law of divorce was not given because God wanted it, but because He knew it happened and He was establishing protections to prevent abuse (this, by the way, is how a number of difficult commandments from the OT law should be understood).

As Jesus explains in the rest of the passage in Matthew, divorce is not something God ever desires. Nor is it something He even condones with an air of resignation. It angers Him because it goes against His original intention for human relationships. Marriage is meant to be an indissoluble union in which two people become one life. The only excuse Jesus gives for ending it is infidelity. And aside from infidelity, He says that anyone who remarries after divorce is guilty of adultery even if they were not fooling around beforehand (which He had also said in Matt. 5:31–32). He meant it when He said, “What God has joined together, let no one separate” (Matt. 19:6).

In doing this, Jesus was consistent with God’s words on divorce in the OT (which is to be expected, seeing as Jesus is God). In Mal. 2:13–16, the Lord explained to the people of Judah that divorce was treachery against the spouse and against God Himself. It betrayed the Lord’s purpose to create a lifelong unity and to provide a home for children raised according to His will. Divorce is an act of hatred, and is therefore something God hates.

Lastly, Christians who downplay divorce do a disservice to what is probably the most important teaching on marriage in the Bible. In Eph. 5:21–33, the Apostle Paul explains that the duties husbands and wives owe each other were meant from the beginning to be a reflection of the love between Christ and the church. Paul does not mention divorce in this context, but the implication is clear. Divorce is not only a destruction of the family as God designed it. It is also an assault on the very concept of salvation.

A number of objections could be listed at this point. The first would be how Paul expands the grounds for divorce to include abandonment (1 Cor. 7:15). Obviously, I am not going to argue against that one. I think it shows the application of the passages I already mentioned, rather than being in contradiction to them. In the same way, I think abusive situations fall under that umbrella. Beyond that, though, people will point out the difficulties of life. They will say that it is too hard to stay married when two people wind up with different goals, or when they feel constrained to give up being themselves, or when they fall out of love. They will say staying together is the wrong option at that point, and that if children are involved, two homes are better than a single, dysfunctional one.

The "Happiness" Problem

It is at this point, then, that we have to turn to the second issue this question brought up. In our society and in today’s church, there is much talk about happiness. But as I have pointed out on other occasions, happiness is not really something God values highly. You can be happy as a Christian, of course. But happiness is an emotion, not a virtue. That means it is a transient experience, not one of the ends (as in purposes) of our existence.

Let me take that a step further. What I mean about happiness being an emotion is that it is fully dependent on your circumstances. If you go out on a warm summer’s day to get an ice cream cone, that will probably make you happy. If a thunderstorm suddenly springs up while you are sitting on a park bench to eat it, that will probably make you unhappy. Neither of your feelings in that case has very much to say about good or bad. The ice cream could be bad for you if it is your eighth one that day. The thunderstorm could be good if your area has been experiencing an extended drought. Your perception of these events is not the most important consideration. God knows this. That is why He tells us to seek the virtue of joy, which is the state of comfort that comes from knowing you belong to Him. That does not depend on circumstances. It depends on Him. It is much better than the fleeting experience of happiness.

And this is where the two issues draw together. When a lack of happiness is used as the grounds for divorce, however it is worded, it shows a deep misunderstanding of God’s will and of His plan for marriage. Marriage is supposed to be a covenantal relationship in which divorce is not viewed as an option.

When you take it off the table and actually take the “for better or for worse” aspect of your vows seriously, then you start to act differently. You become less inwardly focused. Rather than seeking your own happiness, you seek the good of the relationship. Rather than quitting because one or the other of you is uncomfortable, you work together to make it better for both of you. That is because you are seeking God’s joy in your marriage. It is about fortitude rather than feeling. And you will most often find, when you put things in the proper order, good feelings will follow.

Conversely, anyone who refuses to do the work and then uses God as an excuse needs to be very careful. That person is putting words in the Lord’s mouth, words that have never been spoken in Scripture. In fact, His words very clearly point in the opposite direction. Nothing He has said will help justify that person’s divorce. Really, they are attempting to justify themselves. That means the god who wants them to be happy, the god for whom they are actually speaking, is their own heart. They have set up an idol of the self, and they need to remove it so they can seek the will of the one true God.

Again, divorce happens. Marriage is not easy. But at the very least, it needs to be taken seriously. There is forgiveness for it, and for remarriage. There still needs to be a recognition of the fact that something has gone wrong. That is too passive, actually. Something has been done wrong. You can move past it, but not because God “wants you to be happy.” You can move past it because it was another thing for which Christ’s blood was spilled. Divorce is costly for many reasons, but for this one most of all.

That is not a reason to despair, but it is a reason to be honest. It is why our churches should stop looking the other way on this issue. And if you are not there in your marriage, let this be a warning on why to stay away from divorce. Whatever state we are in, this is something we all have to bear in mind. Your happiness is not the highest consideration. God wants more for you. You should, too.

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