are you toast if you get divorced?: Matthew 19

read Matthew 19.  I met a Catholic priest at St. Ignatius Loyola recently who had arrived there after 22 years in the Vatican.  I asked him to explain the concept of annulment to me.  The priest’s answer was filled with more grace than I have encountered from anyone else on the topic.  “We now understand from psychology,” he said, “that people can enter marriage with pre-existing conditions that make them unable to fulfill their marriage vows.  They might suffer from depression, or anxiety, or alocholism or other problems, and so they just aren’t up for the job.”  His face was gentle and his eyes kind.

I loved his answer, and I loved most of all the kindness in his face as he spoke.  It’s not that humans don’t try their best at marriage.  It’s just that some people just aren’t up to for the job – at least not at that point in their life.  Regardless of what you think of the legitimacy of divorce, the priest’s answer is a merciful grace-filled way to look at people.  It’s the kind of mercy we want from God.  It’s the kind of mercy God wants us to give each other.

Mercy is the concept we are thrown back on when we confront the extreme statements Christ makes on the topics of divorce and wealth in Matthew 19.  When Christ makes these statements, his disciples respond in horror:  “If this is the case, it is better not to marry!” the disciples say when they hear his teaching on divorce.  v. 10.  Similarly, they’re astounded at his teaching on the dangers of riches:  “Then who in the world can be saved?” they asked.”  v. 25.  Both times, Christ tells them they’re thinking from a human perspective, not God’s perspective.  Well, isn’t that a problem we all face?

So what is God’s perspective?  What does Christ say about marriage?  The first thing to note is the context.  The Pharisees are asking him whether you can get divorced for any reasons, not because they care, but because they’re trying to trap him with their question.  No one who tries to trap Jesus fares well.  His answer is the same as his response to Satan: he refers them to Scripture.  It’s a good policy.  If someone tries to trap you with questions for which you feel unprepared, don’t ad lib.  Just refer them to Scripture.

The Scripture to which Christ refers them is the Genesis 1 story of Adam and Eve.  There are many profound truths embedded in the story.  The first is that Jesus affirms that the man and woman become “one flesh” when they marry.  This spiritual truth explains why a divorce feels like an amputation; you are cutting out part of your own flesh.  I remember a woman with the haunted eyes of the divorcing asking me, “I don’t know why this should be so painful.  Aren’t we just dividing up our stuff?”  The answer, according to Jesus, is no. You’re dividing up your very self.  Understanding why it’s so painful helps a lot.  It makes you feel less crazy.  It makes you realize that you’re going through grief, not some permanent clinical depression, and that your grief is understandable, and that it will get better.  There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, whether you can see it or not.

The second thing affirmed by Jesus in this passage is that the prerequisite for marriage is separating from your parents.  You are to “leave” your parents and “cleave” to your spouse. Many marriages flounder and even fail because one or both person fails to properly leave their parents.   Somehow we are to walk the line between “honoring” our parents and yet “leaving” them.  As always, the Biblical truth is rich and deep.  Walking that kind of line, as with all Biblical admonitions, requires a prayerful daily walk with God. Only if you have a healthy relationship with the living God, can you avoid making a god (with a small g) out of your parents’ or your spouse’s approval.

The next thing Jesus affirms is that while God did not originally intend divorce, Moses permitted it as a “concession to your hard hearts.”  v. 8.  One of the things that trips people up who are getting divorced is trying to understand the why.  Why did I fail?  Why did he leave?  Am I a failure?  What did I do wrong?  These questions can bind people up in misery for years.  But Jesus’ words cut through all that.  The problem is, he says, that humans get hard hearts.

As you have probably experienced, if someone has a hard heart toward you, you can do no right in their eyes.  When you speak, you sound to that person like the parents in Snoopy.  No matter what you say, they hear it as “wahh wahh, wahh wahh, wahh wahh.”  You may have done something that caused someone to be legitimately upset at you, but the hardening of the heart is their problem.  It’s their sin.  It’s a problem that only God can undo.  God is in the business of softening human hearts.  He melts our hearts with his grace.  Prayer, I believe, is the only option when you encounter a truly hard heart.

And sometimes, when one or both hearts in a marriage are too hard, divorce seems the only option.  So how are we to take Christ’s words here: “I tell you this, whoever divorces his wife and marries someone else commits adultery – unless his wife has been unfaithful”? v. 9.  Are all those people who’ve remarried for reasons other than infidelity committing adultery?  Some might say yes.  If you let Scripture illuminate Scripture, however, accepting that God inspired the whole Bible, you will find the Bible discusses other legitimate reasons for divorce for even the believer.  The apostle Paul, for instance, says that if you’re a Christian, and your non-believing husband wants to leave, you should let him go: “In such cases the Christian husband or wife is no longer bound to the other.” 1 Cor. 7:15.

This “wanting to leave” reason is also known as abandonment.  If abandonment is a Biblical reason for divorce, many accept that there are multiple kinds of abandonment. Someone can live under the same roof as you and yet have abandoned you.  Someone can be immersed in a chemical or other addiction, and have abandoned you.  Someone can be violent toward you, and this, too, I believe, constitutes abandonment.  Not everyone agrees, but the good news is: ultimately God is the Judge, not other humans, and he is merciful.

Those are some of the reasons the Bible allows divorce.  But what if you’re the one who cheated?  What if you’re the one whose heart grew cold?  What if you’re the one wanted to go off and find yourself – only to find yourself, five years later, married to the same type of person all over again, and for what?  What if you had no pre-existing condition except selfishness?  What if you were just a jerk?  What then?  Are you toast?

Of course.  Anyone who has experienced divorce knows the fall-out is astronomical.  You lose most of your friends.  Your children crash and burn.  The ripple effect knocks through your family and your community.  You lose your sense of identity.  You lose your own “self” – because your self was once not one but two.

God knows this, too.  He knows the cost.  He knows the consequences.  He knows you tried.  Everyone tries.  Okay, maybe nobody thinks Kim Kardashian tried, but I’ll even give her the benefit of the doubt (at least if she gives the $2 million ring back).  Why?  Because I want people to give me the benefit of the doubt.

Ultimately, the bottom line is that when a marriage fails, it’s because a marriage involves humans, and humans are imperfect.  The solution is to ask for God’s help and mercy.  Believing in mercy can help prevent you from judging your spouse, your parents, or your grandparents – no matter what they’ve done.  It can keep you from the sin of feeling your own heart harden in response. God can save even the most broken of marriages (just watch the wonderful movie Fireproof if you want him to work in your own heart, or read LOVE AND RESPECT by Emerson Eggerichs if you want to embark on an upward spiral in your marriage), but not if one person’s heart is rock hard toward both God and spouse.  And no matter what you’ve done – that’s what the cross is for.  It’s there so that you can find renewal, strength and dignity.  Jesus sacrificed His dignity, so that you can hold your head up high, without shame, and find forgiveness.

In Christ, there is hope based not on your pre-existing conditions or your problems, but his sacrificial love.  God promises to “restore the years the locusts have eaten.”  He can build up your children.  He can give you a new identity – one based on his love.  He can give you new friends, and restore the old friendships.  Behold, He says.  I am making all things new.

So the nuance of the Bible is that God can redeem people broken by divorce, even as he affirms that he hates divorce.  When the disciples react to Christ’s teaching about divorce being outside God’s desire by exclaiming that it is better not to marry, Jesus responds with a statement about celibacy that Paul also affirms.  Some people have what Paul calls a “gift” of celibacy.  1 Cor. 7:7.  But while serving God as a single person is a gift, the Bible does not teach that marriage is some kind of a lesser state.  As my friend Trish Ryan discusses so passionately in her beautiful, poignant and funny memoir, He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not, God is the ultimate matchmaker.  The moment God made Adam, He said “It’s not good for man to be alone,” and He made Eve.  When Trish Ryan became a Christian, after years of immersing herself in self-help books and spirituality seminars, God’s Voice told her in the most matter-of-fact way possible: “I have more for you.  I want you to want more for yourself… I have a husband for you, and a family…. But you need to take Jesus seriously.”  p. 5.

As Trish recounts in her memoir, she began to trust God for a husband.  She noticed that the only women who would condescendingly say, “well, dear, maybe it’s just not God’s will for you to be married,” were always married.  Trish believes that God is the God of miracles.  She trusts that Jesus came, as He said He did, to bring us an “abundant” life.  She studied the compelling stories in the Bible of how God brought men and women together: Adam and Eve; Abraham and Sarah; Jacob and Rebekah, Boaz and Ruth.  Trish understood that she was not to make an “idol” out of marriage.  But, as she puts it:  “I had a hard time believing that God looked at Adam and said, ‘It is not good for man to be alone,’ yet looked at me and said, ‘But you, on the other hand…'”  You can read about how God provided Trish’s happily ever after in her memoirs.  While celibacy is a gift, the Bible affirms that marriage, too, is a divine gift.

The way Jesus responds to the rich young ruler is similarly nuanced.  The key to understanding this exchange is to note the rich young ruler’s opening question:  “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”  v. 16.  The answer is, as Jesus tells him, and as the Bible makes abundantly clear: ‘there is nothing you can do to inherent eternal life.  You’re not good. Only God is good.  That’s why God had to die on the cross.  Your very question is undermining the necessity of cross.’  For the ruler to stand there and tell Jesus that he had obeyed all of God’s commandments from his youth demonstrates the enormity of the man’s blindness.  It is 100% impossible that the man has always loved his neighbor as himself.  The man literally cannot see his own sin.  He is believing a lie – the lie that he is good.

Many people consider themselves to be good.  They become offended if you say, “you may be good, but I’m not.”  They become angry – even spitting mad.  I think it’s because, deep down, they know they’re not all that good.  When they say they’re “good,” what they really mean is that they’re “good enough.”  But the moment they start to compare themselves not to other people, but to God, they come up against the truth.  They’re kicking against the goads, as the Bible puts it.

It’s a strange phenomenon that people seem to need to know God, before they can admit their imperfections.  When people begin to understand how deeply they are loved, and how Christ’s sacrifice on the cross can cover their every fault, they soften.  They stop harping on the fact that they’ve never had an affair, or how they’ve never cheated on their taxes.  Instead, when they realize they’re in a shame-free zone, they start to admit: “Okay, yeah, sure.  I’m vindictive sometimes.  I can gossip.  I can be small minded.  I can be greedy.  I lie sometimes, when it suits me.  I lust, of course I do.  I sometimes hate people in my heart.  I know.  I don’t want to, but I do.  I can have trouble forgiving.  But God’s not done with me yet.”   The Bible teaches that if you ask for grace, the Holy Spirit comes to live in your heart.  Over time, the Holy Spirit lovingly and kindly, reveals to us our flaws.  But the Spirit’s revelations are always done in the context of love. Our flaws are never revealed to crush us, or make us feel condemned or ashamed.  God moves us from “glory to glory.”  He changes us over time.  For all of us, this change process lasts a lifetime – and beyond.  But you have to be in the game.  People who are resisting God’s call on their life haven’t yet said those magic words, “I’m in.”

And yet we all, deep down, want what God offers.  St. Augustine put it this way, a very long time ago: “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee, O Lord.”  The rich young man seeks Christ out.  He came to Jesus.  Deep down, he knows he wants what Jesus has to offer. He thinks he wants to be perfect, but I would suggest he actually just wants to be loved.  He wants to be in a relationship with God. After all, he is asking how he goes to heaven, the place where God lives.  And when Jesus hears the enormity of the ruler’s spiritual blindness – when the rich man says he’s obeyed every command since his youth – Jesus says: “if you want to be perfect, go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come, follow me.”  v. 21.

So is Christ really saying that everyone has to give up every cent in order to follow him?  As with the gift of celibacy, some people presumably have the gift of poverty.  I don’t actually know anyone with the gift of povery who lives near me on the Upper East Side of Manhattan – except perhaps the 20-something unemployed offspring of Wall Street executives who still live at home – but I’m sure they do exist.

If you look at Christ’s words, however, he is not saying everyone has to give up all their money to go to heaven, he is saying “if you want to be perfect” do this.  He is trying to show the rich man the end game.  He is saying, in effect: if you want to match God in the perfection department, then you have to be as perfect as God is.  Give everything away, just as God has done.

What Jesus does, therefore, with the man who thinks he is good, is give him a glimpse of the extreme holiness of our perfect God.  If you really want to know what good looks like, Jesus is saying in both the exchanges in this chapter, here it is:  God’s covenant relationships are forever, and God has given up everything for us.  God’s love for us is a forever love.  God’s love for us is not based on our behavior, but on His promises.  God gave up heaven in order to come down to earth and die for us.

It’s no wonder, then, that the disciples react with despair.  Who could be perfect like this? The key to this chapter is the answer Jesus gives the disciples after the rich young man goes away “sad, for he had many possessions.”  v. 22.  The disciples ask who can be saved if it’s so hard for a rich man to go to heaven.  Jesus says: “Humanly speaking, it is impossible.  But with God everything is possible.”  v. 26.

Everything is possible with God, because of the cross.   Everything is possible with God, because God sacrificed everything for us so that we could live in heaven even though we’re not good.

That means that if your marriage is failing, give it to God.  If your finances are waning, ask God for help.  If your children are straying, trust God for the impossible.  If you’re single and you can’t imagine any would ever want to ask you out, let alone want to marry you, ask God for a spouse.  But beware: if you go to Him in prayer, the heart He will change will be your own.  He will show you places in your own heart that are rock hard, stony places you weren’t even aware of.  If you give him those places, He will melt them.  The melting process hurts. Just as it takes a lot of heat to change elements from one state to another, so it takes a lot of ‘heat’ to melt us.  Like the rich young man, we become “sad” when God asks us to give up the things to which we cling.  But it hurts good.  God only asks us to give things up because He wants to give us something better.  When Jesus promises a hundred times as much in return, He means it.

There’s only one way to find out.  Get in the game.  You’ll find there a God who says: don’t worry.  I know you’re not good.  I know you’re poor in the spiritual department.  I know you make promises you can’t keep.  I know you can be miserly.  I know that sometimes no one would ever want to be married to you.  I know that sometimes my churches are impoverished.  But I am rich.  I am rich in mercy.  I am rich in grace.  I am rich in love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  And I will give you everything I have, over and over again, because I love you, and not even death will us part.

posted by Caroline Coleman, in on November 1, 2011

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1 thought on “are you toast if you get divorced?: Matthew 19

  1. Pingback: “adultery”: Luke 16:18 (plus bonus love dare) | a verse a day

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