The Dilemma of Divorce

Paper cutout representing a family about to be cut in half with scissors
At the Fall, the battle of the sexes began, and one of the most tragic consequences of that battle is the propensity to divorce.

The Bible’s teaching on divorce cannot be understood apart from its teaching on marriage. In Genesis 2:21-23 we read that God created first Adam and then Eve, putting them together in a wonderful union. Upon meeting his wife, awestruck Adam proclaimed, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” Verse 24 continues, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” Marriage was God’s plan, not man’s. In the deepest sense, every couple that has ever been married participates in a union established by the Creator himself. Marriage, therefore, is a divine institution.

From the beginning, God intended monogamous, lifelong marriage to be the only pattern of union between men and women. “Hold fast to his wife” carries the idea of firm, permanent attachment, as in gluing. In marriage, a man and woman are so closely joined that they become “one flesh.” God brings them together in a unique physical and spiritual bond that reaches to the very depths of their souls. Marriage is the welding of two people together into one unit, the blending of two minds, two wills, two sets of emotions and two spirits. They are not two anymore: From a divine perception, a man and his wife are one, and one is an indivisible number. The Lord intends for that bond to be indissoluble as long as both partners are alive.

Effects of the Fall

Genesis 3 describes the disastrous fall of mankind.

The Fall distorted and perverted the marriage relationship. Henceforth the wife’s “desire” for her husband would no longer be the desire to help but the desire to control — the same desire sin personified is described as having influenced Cain to murder his brother, Abel. Before the deed was done, God warned Cain, saying, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it” (Genesis 4:6-7). Both Genesis 3 and 4 describe wicked desires that seek to dominate against God’s will.

For the man’s part, his “rule” over his wife would henceforth be one of stern control, an overly defensive reaction against her desire to control him. His rule over her would no longer be benevolent and selfless, as it was in the beginning, but overbearing and selfish. At the Fall, the battle of the sexes began, and women’s liberation and male chauvinism have ever since been clouding and corrupting God’s original plan for marriage.

One of the most tragic consequences of that battle is the propensity to divorce.

Loving as God loves

Without exception, divorce is a product of sin, and God hates it. He never commands it, endorses it or blesses it. Far from encouraging divorce, nearly all the references to divorce in the Old Testament put restrictions on it.

The entire Book of Hosea is a picture of God’s forgiving and patient love for Israel, dramatized by the prophet Hosea’s forgiving and patient love for his wife, Gomer. Gomer prostituted herself, forsook Hosea, and was unfaithful to him in every possible way. The heart of the story is that Hosea was faithful and forgiving, just as God is faithful and forgiving. Poor Hosea’s heart was broken when his wife indulged in wickedness, but he stayed close to the Lord, who sustained him. Marriage is not the key to happiness; God is. If you are right with God, He will help you to have right relationships with others.

Some people will still refuse you, but Hosea was successful in wooing back his bride with patient, sacrificial love. He met her needs during all the dark times, but also made it hard for her to continue in sin. The Book of Hosea concludes on the hopeful note of God’s saying to His people, “I will heal their apostasy; I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them” (14:4). This is how Hosea himself concluded the book bearing his name: “Whoever is wise, let him understand these things; whoever is discerning, let him know them; for the ways of the Lord are right, and the upright walk in them, but transgressors stumble in them” (14:9). Although Hosea and Gomer’s marriage is primarily a symbol of God’s relationship to His people Israel, it is also a practical illustration of how to deal with a wayward spouse.

God looks on the union of husband and wife in the same way He looks on the union of himself with believers. Shouldn’t the way of God be the way of His people — to love, forgive, draw back and seek to restore the partner who is willing to be restored? Do we want God to cast us away when we’re the ones doing the sinning — to treat us on a one-false-move-and-you’re-done basis, as so many marriages are handled now?

Holding the union together

God’s forgiving love seeks to hold the union together. That is how Christ loves His church, which is a model for every husband. Ephesians 5:25-29 explains:

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church.

The two key attitudes in a successful marriage are self-denial and self-giving, both of which are contrary to human nature but made possible to those who trust in God through Christ.

A related truth is the Golden Rule our Lord gave in the Sermon on the Mount: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). You’ll never have a better opportunity to do that than in marriage. There must be forgiving love and restoring grace in a marriage. That alone makes marriage a proper symbol of God’s forgiving love and restoring grace. That is the magnificence of marriage. Its permanence symbolizes God’s permanent relationship with His people. To pursue divorce is to miss the whole point of God’s dramatization in the story of Hosea and Gomer, the whole point of our Lord’s love for His church, and thus the whole point of marriage. God truly hates divorce.

John MacArthur is the pastor-teacher of Grace Community Church, as well as an author, conference speaker, president of The Master’s College and The Master’s Seminary, and featured teacher with the Grace to You radio ministry. This article is an excerpt taken from his book The Divorce Dilemma, and it’s used with permission from Day One Publications.

If you are contemplating divorce, please consider attending Hope Restored™, Focus on the Family’s marriage intensive experience. Hope Restored offers three-, four-, or five-day intensive counseling programs for couples who are experiencing serious marital struggles.

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