In his words about divorce, Jesus takes us beyond what the law allows, to what we might call the ideal for marriage. Looking back to Genesis 1 and 2, Jesus says, "from the beginning of creation `God made them male and female'." And, "for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." But what does it mean to be one flesh? Well, it could mean that the man and woman are exactly alike, duplicates of each other, or it could mean that one spouse controls the marriage. These are possible definitions, but there is no mutuality in them. Then there is the popular fifty-fifty marriage, but as Walter Wangerin points out, when we think of ourselves as fractions we will discover that "these two halves don't fit perfectly together." There is, however, another possible definition. Wangerin suggests that in a marriage, there are three complete beings: the couple and the relationship between them. Both partners serve this relationship, benefit from it, and yet neither of them is exactly like the relationship.
This relationship is itself very much like a living being--like a baby born from you both. It has its own character. It enters existence infantile, when you speak vows to one another. It comes cuddly and lovely, but very weak and in need of care and nourishment. As time goes on, as this baby-relationship grows up, it becomes stronger and stronger until it serves and protects you in return. This `being', this living thing, this relationship which needs you both (the whole of each of you), but which is not you (it is not the two of you added together, because it is distinct from either one of you)-- that is your "oneness."
This relationship is God's gift to us, and this is why Jesus says to us: "What God has joined together, let no one separate." Don't let your brokenness destroy this union. Instead, nourish your relationship, respect it, and invest yourself in it. Marriage brings with it great blessings, but the relationship between the human partners is always a fragile thing because we come into it as two broken people.
Yes, we are hardhearted people. Remember, Genesis 3 follows Genesis 2, and in Genesis 3 sin enters the picture. The relationship crumbles as these two people – in this case husband and wife – find themselves divided against each other. They blame each other for their mistakes. The man seeks to rule over the woman, oppressing her. In spite of this, the woman still seeks out a relationship. What was once wonderful becomes broken and unattractive. Therefore, the law allowed a man to divorce his wife. It does not allow a woman to divorce her husband.
While this might not have been what God intended for humanity, it reflects the reality of human experience. I know about this reality; I am the child of divorce. I have seen how sin can destroy a marriage and disrupt a family. I have seen how painful it is for a relationship to die, to see promises violated.
When Cheryl and I were married we promised to receive each other joyfully as partners, "to love and to cherish from this day forward -- in times of poverty and times of prosperity, in times of sickness and times of God health -- to love and to enjoy until death shall separate us." When we made that promise, we didn't leave any room for divorce. We made the promise to live together and love each other until the time of our deaths. Of course, it hasn't always been easy to keep this promise. We have argued and we have fought and there have been times of silence between us. I say this to my own shame, and yet, we have remained true to our promise, "till death shall separate us."
Every day we depend on God's grace and God's forgiveness, to help us stay on this path of faithfulness. Every couple that has stayed together for the long haul, has had to work through times of brokenness, whether that be sickness, poverty, disagreement, and perhaps even unfaithfulness. Yes, it is only by God's grace that we can forgive each other.
Walter Wangerin writes of a period in his marriage, when his relationship with his wife, became broken. As he tells it, it wasn't that he had been unfaithful or become a bad person, he had just neglected his relationship. In his attempt to be faithful to his duties as a pastor, he had forgotten his wife. As time passed she became angry and bitter, and a wall of separation appeared between them. Not only did they stop talking, but his wife, Thanne, would recoil at his touch. After months of carrying this bitterness within her, Thanne finally let her husband know the reason for her pain, but that did not end the silence. They continued to live together, but they did so without love and without forgiveness.
He writes movingly of this time of distress in their marriage:
I didn't so much as brush her back when I crawled into bed. And once in bed I lay stone still for fear of shaking the mattress and waking her. Did she sleep then? I don't know, though she looked sallow and sick in the daylight. For my own part, my heart hammered all night long. Sometimes she rose in darkness to pace the house; and then I cried because the bed was empty and because I could not help her in her hurt: I didn't have the right even to try. I restrained myself in silence. I played with the kids. I preached, a purple hypocrite, the poet of the pulpit. And always the tears trembled just behind my eyes, even at church. But I could live without love.
Wangerin tells us that Thanne couldn't forgive him because his "sin was greater than her capacity to forgive, had lasted longer than her kindness, had grown more oppressive than her goodness." His sin, he writes, was the "murder of her spirit, the unholy violation of her sole identity -- the blithe assumption of her presence, as though she were furniture."
Although Thanne could not forgive him, Jesus could and one day that forgiveness did work its way through her and it restored her love for him. I know of what he speaks, for I too have on occasion murdered Cheryl's spirit. I have taken her for granted and I have tested her ability to forgive, but I am thankful for God's forgiveness that has allowed her to forgive me.
Unfortunately, there are times when a relationship becomes so distorted that there is really no other option but divorce. When this happens, a death occurs, not the death of the two people, but of the relationship that existed between them. If such an occasion comes about then we must mourn the loss of something precious and allow God's grace to heal us.
While the divine intention is that marriage should be for a lifetime, human reality, with its brokenness, can lead to divorce. I do not want those who have been divorced to hear my words as words of condemnation. Instead I hope they are heard as an invitation to experience God's healing grace and reconciliation, for in Christ all things become new (2 Corinthians 5:17).
The ideal for marriage – whether one is gay or straight – is to nourish the relationship, by giving one’s self completely to the other. When the flame begins to die out, then if at all possible, rekindle it. If one is contemplating marriage, and seeing it as a daunting calling, it is important to recognize that a couple’s journey together is not easy. At the same time, it can be a wonderful journey. Because of the growing numbers of divorces, there is an increasing tendency to go into marriage assuming that it won’t last until “death do us part.” Quite often that assumption becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Moses, Jesus said, provided the option of divorce as a recognition of brokenness. Jesus points us back to the ideal. The question then, for us today, concerns how we experience the reality of broken relationships, especially those relationships that are beyond restoring to their earlier place. For some it is simply necessary to let go of what was and move forward into a new reality. Jesus doesn't speak in this space about this option, but his over all message is one of reconciliation and newness of life. He continually offers a word of healing and hope. The gospel brings grace. And such is the reality that we take hold of here.
Jesus upholds the ideal. The reality is that not every couple will find it possible to continue the journey together. Divorce is a legal remedy that allows two people to make the necessary arrangements so that can start new lives. Of course, once married, one’s lives are always entangled, especially if there are children involved. Nonetheless, if we see divorce not as a legal remedy but as the spiritual death of a relationship, then there would seem to be the opportunity for making a new life that might include a new spouse and a new family.
Part two of emerging chapter on marriage and divorce in Marriage Study Guide