When I worked within the local church, each place had it’s own “position paper” on divorce. For the most part, divorce within the church is primarily forbidden, even under the most dire of circumstances. Yes, it’s true that divorce rates within the church are as high as elsewhere, but that doesn’t usually come without some scrutiny and harsh judgement, and in many cases it means either excommunication if one does divorce, or consignment to a horrible marriage. ? Why has the church not been able to model for the world what a great marriage looks like?
A divorce is a rift. It’s a division or split of one thing into two things. This is why Jesus’ teaching on divorce comes precisely after the teaching on murder and adultery; the two other areas where we separate the parts from the whole person. These are the three explanations of the chiastic structure relating back to beatitude number seven: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons/daughters of God.” (Matthew 5:9) If we want peace in our lives, marriages, and relationships there will be soul work to do within each of us.
Most people’s definition of divorce is the final legal proceeding, after which people go their own way. This definition is just as problematic as seeing murder only as the killing of a person or adultery only as sex outside of marriage. The (ápostásion/ certificate of divorce) may very well be the final act of divorce which is ratified by the State, but it is certainly not THE DIVORCE that has already taken place, with which God is most concerned.
Jesus’ definition reveals how its possible to be legally bound to someone with whom you are divorced; the precise recipe for a life with no peace, or as we have already seen, a living captivity or Hell. This is NOT saying that the legal documents are not important, they are, it is only saying that they are less important than what transpires in the heart if we would truly find peace and liberation.
The sad state of most married people is that they are neither free from their obligation to their marriages, nor are they free within their marriages. This is because we over-identify with the institution of marriage. We make an idol out of it in both directions.
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:31-32)
Once again in this Sermon, Jesus is bringing true meaning to the rules by reframing everything. He’s quoting the law found in Deuteronomy 24:1 where a man can basically divorce his wife anytime he finds fault with her. He would write a certificate of divorce and that would release him from obligations to her. This left women in a desperate place, forcing them to lie about previous marriages or resort to prostitution in order to survive. It was cruel and it’s miles away from the idea of marriage, union, or God’s design of two becoming one-flesh (Genesis 2:24). The law was striving to preserve propriety, but actually only invited more adultery and separation. It couldn’t liberate because it didn’t equalize the power for women.
“Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” (Matthew 19-20)
Remember the sin of adultery is dismemberment; it’s the same sin as murder and divorce: separating the “faulty part” from the whole person. Can you now see the amazing wisdom bubbling to the surface here? The moment we separate the part from the whole we are divorced, we become adulterers and murderers. We may not have actually killed anyone, nor actually have had sex with anyone, nor actually have given a certificate of divorce, but on the heart level, we’ve proven how unloving we actually are. A divorce is what fills the void of liberation and equality.
A marriage where one person has an upper hand is actually a divorce. A marriage where one competes for resources, attention or power is actually a divorce. A marriage where obligation replaces loving compulsion is actually a divorce. A marriage of inequality is actually a divorce. A marriage that holds captive another is actually a divorce. Most marriages are actually legally binding divorces and this is a life of suffering and death at a heart level. No one has ever divorced someone they actually loved.
Love is the remedy and the design. Love is the inclusion of the “other”. It’s the embracing of the reality that if we look hard enough we will always find fault, so we lay down our need to be offended by it. Love immediately closes any rift of any size because it will not allow the part to overshadow the whole. Love is how two become one. Love is how we become one with God and one with each other. Love is the falling, letting go part which comes easy at first. We overlook (the parts) because we want to include (the whole) rather than exclude. Later we retreat into our minds and cannibalize one another. Falling back in love is as easy as inclusion. Pride loves offense, love lets go of it. This is how God deals with us and how we are to deal with others.
“The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.” (Psalm 103:8-10)
The mercy doesn’t stop there. Sometimes in a relationship between the two, one person doesn’t desire union. Sometimes a person prefers isolation, anger, hostility, oppression, manipulation, abuse, or some vice more than peace, freedom, and love. In such a case this persons sorrows have overcome them and they do not yet have the capacity to live in love because they want to believe they are what is wrong with them. If that is you or you are in a relationship with such a person, the mercy of God doesn’t constrain you to suffer with them unless compelled by love to do so.
Only with Jesus definition does the certificate of divorce become the empowering act of liberation. God will not constrain you to a life devoid of love. It brings him no honor to remain in a divorce masquerading as marriage. Sometimes the most loving thing you can do for your relationship is open your hand to it. In these cases, a divorce is the honest appraisal of the reality of a heart hardened by dismemberment and isolation. If we want to live in our own private hell, love actually loves us enough to allow it. All hell is a three-sided emotional/cognitive cage. We can all walk out at any moment, but we must want freedom, authenticity, and love more than the malware scripts that we hoist upon ourselves.
Some will say to me: “Keven, the bible says divorce is only allowed only for sexual immorality.” Remember, the sin of sexual immorality is dismemberment. It’s exclusion rather than inclusion. It’s isolation rather than communion. Divorce from Jesus perspective is not a “giving up on marriage” but rather the holding of marriage to a much higher standard. The reason the Church has failed to lead the world in marriage is that it’s view of marriage is too low by allowing loveless marriages. Jesus is essentially saying that if your not in marriage to self-empty and divest in inclusive love for the other person, then just get out and stop pretending. It’s better you live celibate than take someone down into your hell of control.
This is where divorce gets honest. We don’t want celibacy. We prove that we really just want sex, not relationships or intimate union. We want to consume another not divest in love. We want our malware scripts that blame the other and exonerate ourselves. We reveal that we know nothing of love and thus our lives lack any real and lasting peace. We are truly poor in spirit. Good news: you suck as a person! If you see it then that means you are truly blessed!
And that recognition is where it all changes. We begin with mourning over our condition laden with many sorrows. It reveals us as meek and not proud, it makes hunger for the right things, and makes us merciful and thus peacemakers who suffer for doing the right thing. The beatitudes make sense. They are now palpably real and concretized. They are mile markers on the road to new life. Sucky people who act through love make the best kingdoms.
And now the true meaning of this sermon begins to unfold. May we all follow this awareness to where it is leading us.