Reader’s Question –
Jesus said, whoever divorced his wife and married another commits adultery. When I married my husband (who has been in a previous relationship) I knew this. But I shrugged it off. And I thought that it probably didn’t count in our situation. But it’s pretty cut and dry. And honestly, I’m scared to death I’m going to hell for being an adulteress. What are your thoughts?
The first thing we have to do is look at what the Bible has to say about divorce. We know that God made provision for it in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. In Malachi 2:16 we are told that God hates divorce, and this is one of the most quoted verses about divorce out there. However, if we are going to quote it we need to read it in context and pay attention to what is and is not being said. God does not say it is a sin, he says the reasons for the divorce are a sin and he hates that his people are acting in violence, hurting one another.
This brings us to Jesus’ teaching in Mark 10:1-10
First, there is a set up. The Pharisees ask Jesus a dumb question, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Jesus doesn’t take the bait, and points them back to the passage in Deuteronomy mentioned above when he asks them, “What did Moses command you?” In other words, he was saying, “Of course, it is lawful for man to divorce his wife. God already addressed that when he gave Moses the law. And then Jesus explains why the law was given, and it was given because people have hard hearts.
Think about this with me for a while. What would cause anyone to do the things that lead to divorce? What causes someone to cheat, to abuse, to control, to be insensitive, to deliberate choose to do things that hurt another human being – particularly a person you have vowed to love and who has vowed to love you? If you answered a hard heart, then you win the prize. (Go buy yourself a cookie and enjoy!) God knew that people are lousy at keeping their promises to him and each other, and that no one can force another to be true to their word. So he gave us an out for when someone breaks their promises to us and allow us to stop being hurt. That is how much he loves us!
He desires that marriages remain intact and that we grow through this intimate union, but he set a boundary in place. He said you don’t have to be the victim of another person’s harden heart. You can be free, and you can put an end to the violence committed against you.
Before we go any further, let’s back up and take a look at what was really going on in this conversation. We have already shown how the whole thing was a set up with misleading question the Pharisees asked, but a set up for what? In Jesus day there were more than one type of Jew. There were the liberal and the conservative Jews, each interpreting the law according to their own bias. The liberal Jews said that divorce could be had for any reason and still be lawful, all a man had to do was establish that his wife was displeasing to him. (I don’t know about you, but my morning breath is pretty displeasing to everyone, including my husband, but I don’t think that is grounds for divorce.) The conservative Jews said that divorce was only allowed in cases of adultery. The whole point of this question was to get Jesus to declare whether or not he was liberal or conservative. It had absolutely nothing to do with the right and wrongness of divorce – that debate had already been settled along party lines.
So Jesus, being the brilliant person he is, sidesteps the whole issue of party politics and cuts right to the heart of the matter – if you divorce then you are causing another person to sin. This was particularly true for the women whose only options were to remarry or to become prostitutes in order to support themselves. Men could decide not to marry again and carry on with their lives.
And if we go back and read Matthew 19:1-12, we get pretty much the same break down of the issue, but it is interesting that if go back a page from that to Matthew 18: 5, 6, you will see that the person who causes another to sin is held to be the guilty party – even more so than the one sinning! And the consequences are severe. Jesus is driving home the point that divorce is not to be taken lightly, but he never renounces the Torah’s provision for remarriage. Remarriage was not only allowed, it was expected under Jewish law.
If we turn on over to 1 Corinthians 7:1-16, we find that while Paul encourages married people to remain together, he recognizes that it is not always within the believer’s power to keep it from happening. He goes to say that if an unbelieving spouse leaves the believing spouse is “not enslaved.” I believe that Paul is saying that the vows of marriage no longer bind the divorcee. And it is important to note that he never renounces the provision for remarriage offered under the Hebrew law. How do we know that remarriage was expected under Jewish law? Two reasons: Deuteronomy says that a woman who was divorced and remarries a second man cannot return to her original husband if she divorces him. Notice that the second marriage is taken for granted, and there is no decree that the second marriage was wrong. Two, it is recorded within the Rabbinic teachings that remarriage is encouraged after divorce.
Now, back to the reader’s question, is she going to hell for being an adulteress? No. I don’t believe so, and here is why. Even if I thought I remarriage was a sin, I still have to believe that God is big enough and loving enough to keep his word to forgive all sins we may ever dream up. He is not a liar, and he does not break his promises.
I also cannot imagine where breaking our promises or vows within a new marriage is the right thing to do. Two wrongs do not make a right, and if we dissolve a second marriage we are merely compounding our folly. If the original relationship was ended for reasons that are not Scriptural, then repentance is the correct response, and forgiveness needs to be sought with God. However, once that has been carried out then we need to accept God’s grace and trust in his loving nature so that we may live holy lives now. Now is the time to not only embrace God’s mercy, it is a time to become a living example of how God’s love changes our lives and brings new blessings in the midst of our brokenness.