Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 5:31b “. . .Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a
writing of divorcement:”
Jesus here refers to a divorce law given by Moses in Deuteronomy 24:1. Divorce, being prevalent in the ancient world, was in all probability common in Israel before the Exodus. Moses therefore found himself in a dilemma. He knew the perfect will of God in marriage was one man with one woman till death do they part, but he also realized divorce had become too deeply rooted to be abolished soon or easily. Therefore, as Jesus explained to the religious leaders, “Because of your hardness of heart, Moses permitted you to divorce your wives” (MT 19:8 NAS).
Moses’ declaration in Deuteronomy 24:1 was not meant to approve, encourage, or facilitate divorce. His intent was to control, not condone, the practice. Due to the spiritual chaos around him, Moses invoked civil law to reduce fallout from the wholesale breakdown of religious law. Civil law is usually more lax than Christian law, the former having to legislate and enforce what the latter does not uphold.
Due to the low spiritual state of his society, Moses allowed divorce as a concession, but tried to make divorce more difficult. A husband would no longer be allowed to cast out his wife on a whim. Divorce was not to be handled haphazardly or entered into lightly. The husband had to have a legitimate grievance, and had to present his wife “a writing of divorcement,” a divorce certificate. This formal, legal document would protect the wife against further legal action from her husband. For instance, he could not later falsely accuse her of desertion. The certificate also proved she had been a lawful wife, not a concubine, a prostitute, or a live-in lover.
By Jesus’ day, many Jews were taking inexcusable liberties with Moses’ directive. Husbands were divorcing wives for any frivolous reason whatsoever, including a cross disposition, an ugly sore, illness, and bad breath. The statement Moses had given to permit divorce solely in extraordinary circumstances had been perverted into a license granting divorce for any and every cause, however trivial.
We today can relate to this dilemma. We, too, find ourselves in a society where divorce is way too common, and too often entered into lightly. America has the world’s highest divorce rate. Fifty percent of our marriages end in divorce. The divorce rate for first marriages is forty percent, second marriages sixty percent, third marriages seventy-five percent. Since sixty percent of first marriages survive, and since the average length of marriages ending in divorce is seven years, seventy-five percent of all married Americans are married to their first spouse. When we couple this one ray of sunshine with the fact that many single adults want to be married we see that marriage is a stronger institution among us than we might think. Nevertheless, I think we would all agree something is seriously wrong with American wedlock. Let us consider four major problem areas in America’s marriages.
First, many marriages suffer from unreal expectations. There is only one perfect wife in the world, and I found her. Be realistic. As Pastor Ed Young says, “Marriage is not the solution to anyone’s problems, nor can it fulfill all of their desires. Marriage does not make you whole. Jesus Christ makes you whole. He and He alone is the solution to man’s needs for security and significance.” The joy we seek in life must first be found in Jesus and then be brought into our marriage.
Second, many marriages start wrong. Americans are notorious for marrying for the wrong reasons. Forgetting that spiritual considerations have to come first, believers often marry nonbelievers. Some mistake pity for love; pity is a good base for ministry, but not for marriage. Many feel lonely, and love marriage for marriage’s sake; as difficult and lonely as the single life can be, it is still much better than being married to a pain. Some look only for romance. Passion helps, but can carry a relationship only so far. As my Grandpa Marshall used to say, “Son, marry someone you like, and the love will take care of itself.” Marriage is, as much as anything else, a friendship, a partnership between two people who like each other. Look for a kind friend with a good disposition. Eleazar, in seeking a wife for Isaac, desired a lady who was kind and courteous. He asked God to send to the well a girl who would say, “Drink, and I will water your camels also” (GN 24:14).
Third, many marriages ignore the danger signals. According to a study conducted over twenty-five years at the University of Washington, a crumbling marriage goes through four predictable stages of deterioration. The first indicator of a troubled relationship is criticism. Hostile put-downs are cancerous cells that erode a relationship. Gary Chapman says spouses should limit criticisms of one another to no more than one a week. The second warning sign is defensiveness. A siege mentality takes over. When one spouse is speaking, the other proves he or she is no longer listening by interrupting with shouting or by quietly slipping into a cocoon. The third stage of disintegration is contempt. A spouse is no longer considered a partner of equal value, and no longer deemed worthy of the effort to save the relationship. The fourth level of deterioration is withdrawal. The spouses go their separate ways. They may divorce, or may still live in the same house, but lead parallel lives, never interacting with each other in a significant way.
Fourth, many marriages refuse to work hard on solutions. A good marriage requires hard work for a lifetime. To combat marital deterioration, Gary Chapman outlines a helpful strategy in his wonderful book, “The Five Love Languages.” The first love language is words of affirmation that build up the other person. Offset our one criticism a week with scores of affirmations a day. The second key is gifts. These do not have to be expensive. They just need to be things which show a partner has been thinking of his or her mate while they were apart. The third love language is acts of service. Be especially careful to share household chores, such as vacuuming, taking out the garbage, doing dishes and laundry. Both spouses should do all chores, and whenever possible it is best to do them together. The fourth help is quality time. Spouses must give one another undivided attention. Talk to each other alone. Studies indicate as many as eighty-six percent of divorces are fueled by deficient communications. The fifth love language is physical touch. Hold hands, kiss, be intimate. Marie Sanders, a widow, once told me the thing she missed most of all was her husband’s touch. When my Grandpa Hill’s corpse was in his casket, my Grandma sat a long while in a wheelchair beside him with her hand on his. Try to touch one another often. A touch is silent, but speaks volumes.
Note how the five love languages counteract the four danger signals. Words of affirmation soften the blow of criticism. Quality time ends defensiveness. Gifts and acts of service denote value, not contempt. Physical touch nullifies withdrawal.
We must be willing to work hard at learning how to love the one we are now married to. As the divorce rate shows–first marriages forty percent, second sixty percent, third seventy-five percent–people do not have much luck running from a bad marriage. We usually do not do a better job picking a spouse the second or third time than we do the first time. Divorcees often turn around and marry the same type of scoundrel they did before. Americans say marry someone you love, but the Bible teaches us to love the one we are married to (EP 5:25). Whatever the Bible commands, we can with God’s help do. We all can and must love our spouse.