Divorce can be hard on everyone involved - but is divorce an unforgivable sin?
In 1989 Dr. Diane Medved, a secular psychologist from Santa Monica, California, published a controversial book entitled The Case Against Divorce.1 Having experienced divorce herself, Medved argues that most couples who turn to divorce do so prematurely—and often unnecessarily. Her research indicated that “the process and aftermath of divorce is so pervasively disastrous—to body, mind, and spirit—that in an overwhelming number of cases, the ‘cure’ that it brings is surely worse than the marriage’s ‘disease.’”2
We all know how devastating divorce can be, but divorce statistics are some of sociology’s most widely debated numbers. To say that one in three marriages will end in divorce is to say nothing about a particular marriage’s chances of survival. Many variables converge in a marriage to make divorce more or less likely.
Christian faith is one of the variables that hold the interest of researchers. Does faith in Christ make a marked difference in the stability of a marriage?
Faith and Divorce
Some claim that Christians are statistically just as likely to divorce as non-Christians are. In fact, some studies have indicated that evangelical Christians are even more likely to divorce than their non-Christian counterparts.3 Others have argued the opposite.
However, when you take into consideration only Christians who are actively engaged in the practice of their faith, the divorce rate drops drastically.4 While nominal “Christian faith” offers little in the way of hope, apparently an active faith life can play a role in helping married couples work through the difficulties of forging a life together.
One reason that divorce and the Christian faith is such an intriguing subject is that it is an issue about which the Christian church has taken one of its most rigid stands. Despite its prevalence both inside and outside the church, divorce—or divorce and remarriage—has often been treated as an almost unpardonable sin. Why such a fierce stance?
God Hates Divorce
The ancient Hebrew prophet Malachi, who taught the people of Israel about four hundred years before Jesus, offered this word to his people: “‘I hate divorce,’ says the Lord, the God of Israel.”5
To be clear, the prophet did not say that God hates people who have been divorced. He meant that God hates what divorce (all that leads up to it and all that flows from it) does to those he loves and to his purpose for the covenant of marriage.
The pain of a failing marriage cuts deep in human lives, as Medved pointed out. The hearts of men, women, and children are broken when divorce occurs. The impact of a divorce can go on for many years—especially when children are involved. When promises and covenants are easily broken, the very fabric of society is threatened. This is part of what God “hates” about divorce.
Divorce in Ancient Israel
In ancient Hebrew society, divorce was particularly hard on the wife. She could be left without means of support, plagued by shame and the stigma—deserved or not—that she had been unfaithful to her husband.6
The Jewish Law made provision for a man to divorce his wife (never the other way around) as long as the woman was given a certificate of divorce, protecting her in some ways from social stigma.7 Rabbis (Jewish teachers) who lived a century before Jesus debated the question of the circumstances under which divorce was permitted according to that law.
The school of Rabbi Hillel argued that a man could divorce his wife for almost any reason. The school of Rabbi Shammai, on the other hand, argued that unfaithfulness on the part of the woman was the only basis for divorce.
Jesus on Divorce
This law and its application are alluded to in the story of Jesus’ birth in Matthew 1:18–25. Joseph learns that Mary, whom he is pledged to marry, is pregnant. Apparently she has been unfaithful in her commitment to Joseph. Consequently, he considers initiating divorce proceedings, which even the followers of Rabbi Shammai would have agreed was permissible. However, after being warned in a dream that the child in Mary’s womb is the miraculous product of the Spirit of God, Joseph goes ahead with the marriage.
Jesus himself spoke on the issue of divorce on a couple of occasions.8 You can hear the rabbinical debate on the topic echoing in the background of his comments.
Some religious officials asked Jesus whether it was permissible for a man to divorce his wife “for any and every reason” (the position of Hillel).9 Jesus, although apparently siding with Shammai by saying that unfaithfulness is the only grounds for divorce, took the issue to a deeper level.
Jesus said that the law allowing divorce was given because human hearts are so “hard” (meaning self-centered and unloving).10 This meant that, given humans’ spiritual condition, divorce would be inevitable, and so the law was given to protect the women in Jewish society. God’s Law didn’t approve of divorce or even require it in cases of adultery; the law regulated divorce.
Then Jesus referred to some of the earliest verses of the Bible—Genesis 2:18–25, specifically. He reminded his listeners that God’s intention for marriage from the beginning had been for a man and a woman to live together in faithfulness and love for a lifetime. In order to accomplish that goal, the human heart would have to learn the full meaning of love.
Perhaps this is where one’s active faith practice can help the most. When two people are genuinely committed to following Jesus as his disciples and are seeking to grow spiritually, they have spiritual assets at their disposal. These resources help them deal more compassionately, kindly, and lovingly with both their own and their spouse’s failures and flaws.
Although being Christian does not inoculate a couple against divorce, they may find some resources in their faith to help them sustain their marriage vows when they might otherwise have given up.
In the lives of practicing Christians, prayer will play a vital role in dealing with the typical problems that bring tension to most marriages: finances, child-rearing, relating to one’s in-laws, dealing with one’s sexuality.11 Practicing Christians work on forgiveness, a necessary component in family life that can prevent resentment and bitterness from eroding the relationship.12 Submission, learning to be happy without having to have one’s own way, is a Christian virtue that both husbands and wives can learn to demonstrate.13
Active Christians will also have friendship and community with other Christians who can provide a listening ear and wise advice when family life is difficult. Above all, Christians have the reassurance that God has promised his continuing presence, grace, wisdom, comfort, and leadership to all those who trust in him.
Is Divorce Unforgiveable?
Those who have experienced the pain of divorce need to hear that divorce is never presented in the Christian Scriptures as an unforgivable sin. It is a sin like all other sins, because it falls short of God’s loving desire and plan for us.
But God forgives sin. Many have known the grace of God in the midst and aftermath of divorce. It has helped them to recover from a failed marriage and establish an enduring Christ-centered marriage.
In God there is always hope, always the promise of redemption, always the strength to face all life’s challenges.