Being One Flesh: Understanding Divorce in the Bible
Our various experiences in life mark us in definite ways, but we are more than those experiences and our choices. The issue of divorce in the Bible can be difficult to wade into because when marriage becomes stained with pain, alienation, and dysfunction, the fallout can be devastating, not only to the people immediately involved but also to those that are connected to them in some way.
Many struggles arise around divorce including pain, guilt, a sense of failure, and other such challenges. It’s difficult to chart a path through our culture’s easy acceptance of divorce as just another reality of life, the heavy-handed treatment of divorced people within faith communities, and what the Bible has to say about it.
To be sure, it is an understatement that life after Eden is messy, and people’s hearts aren’t always aligned and driven by the same values and sense of purpose. Not one I’ve ever met in all of my practice as a therapist, nor in life, has ever declared that they got married with the idea that things were going to be horrible and they would get divorced at some point in the foreseeable future (of course, there can be someone out there with that idea, but I would call that a ridiculous attitude).
Divorce happens under widely varying circumstances, making it hard to speak to every one of them. The Bible speaks broadly about marriage and divorce leaving the principles found in there applicable to any and all.
The main picture that we have about marriage is that it is a union between two people that places them in a permanent covenant relationship. The first man and woman are brought into a relationship when God creates them; they are two distinct individuals whose differences complement each other while being equal in dignity. When God brings these two together, the man says:
“This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.” That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh. Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame” – Genesis 2: 23-25, NIV
The two are now one flesh, which denotes intimacy as well as unity of purpose. There was no discord between the man and his wife, no selfishness, or hidden agendas. They are naked in front of each other, and there is no shame. Husband and wife are open and vulnerable to each other, without holding anything back.
The situation changes, of course, as Genesis 3 describes for us. Their disobedience to God means that they break the relationship between themselves and the Lord, but also within themselves. Now, shame floods into the picture and they blame one another, their circumstances, and God for what went wrong. Both husband and wife refuse to take responsibility for their part in disobeying God and they attempt to cover themselves up while trying to hide from God.
Instead of being for each other, they are now aggressively for themselves. This is the same pattern that persists to this day. We see in those brief verses a microcosm of the world we now live in, of the tensions between the joy of vulnerability and the pain of being betrayed by the very one that you are joined as one with.
We see in these verses the seeds of husbands and wives keeping secrets from each other, using their spouses for their own ends, betraying their commitment to each other, refusing accountability, pretending ignorance, hurting one another, being insecure or overbearing, resisting intimacy and taking advantage of that intimacy, and many other wrongs that plague our marriages and relationships today.
The innocence, fullness, richness, and depth of what was there at the beginning of creation is now somewhat lost to us. By God’s grace alone do we have the capacity to break free from committing these wrongs without stopping and love deeply the one we are bound to in marriage.
Does God allow divorce in the Bible?
The answer to this question is “it’s complicated.” In the Bible, we find not only examples of divorce, but instances where there seems to be permission to divorce (with certain ways dictated in how to go about it and for what reasons it may be permissible).
Being in a country where there is “no fault” divorce laws is far from the reflection of what God desires for His people in His Word. Instead of a permanent union between a husband and wife, the culture now encourages us to configure our relationships in whatever ways seem right in our eyes.
Therefore, it is important to look for the whole picture of what God is saying in His Word when you are asking to know the difference between right and wrong and already have your own ideal or culture’s very loud voice in your head.
By looking for the whole picture, we can avoid getting stuck in certain parts of Scripture that seem to fit our desires and miss the balancing Scriptures that complete His truth. Even those who study and teach the law have fallen into this trap. Here we see an example of this in a conversation between Jesus and some religious leaders from the book of Matthew:
Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”
“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason, a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So, they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
“Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”
Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” – Matthew 19:3-9, NIV
f there is one thing that we can get from the study of being one flesh in the Bible, it is this: God hates divorce. While divorce is permissible, that wasn’t what God had in mind “in the beginning.” It is a compromise in a broken world populated by imperfect people with “hard hearts,” as Jesus put it.
Divorce undoes something intended to be permanent, so it is a grave thing to go through with or even to consider. The gravity of the decision is often mocked in our culture and even celebrated as both a right and a passage to freedom. In complete contrast, the Bible describes ending a marriage as the tearing of flesh.
It goes on in other passages to say, “’The man who hates and divorces his wife,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect,” says the Lord Almighty. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful.’ – Malachi 2:16, NIV
One of the key things to remember as we seek understanding divorce in the Bible is that God’s grace toward us is abundant. Divorce happens for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, we make choices that aren’t wise or honoring to the Lord, and sometimes choices are thrust upon us that we wouldn’t have made.
This is where the search through Scripture is rightly expanded from the topic of marriage and being one flesh to divorce and what to do from there as a believer, to also God’s grace and our need for a Savior. The Lord knows our hearts, in all their depths. Jeremiah reminds us:
The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? “I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve.” – Jeremiah 17:9-10, NIV
God is all knowing and unchanging – which is difficult to relate to, as what we feel like and how we see things is constantly changing. God knows the whispers of our hearts, the deep pain residing there, and he offers comfort through truth amid our wandering and grief. Our perspectives and feelings won’t be what bring us healing, but instead our trust in God. God is gracious, and He is also righteous, which means He will not sugar coat the truth or sweep aside His law.
His plan for humanity and marriage was for that union to be permanent and exclusive, a mirror and reflection of His commitment to His people (Ephesians 5:31-33; Ezekiel 16; Revelation 21; Hebrews 11). Breaking a marriage is not what God desires, so the proper response is to mourn a divorce as tragic when it happens.
God also desires healthy relationships and healthy marriages – that is His plan for us – and He is well aware that the presence of sin and the hardness of our hearts often stand in the way of us doing what is best for us. Marriages all too often contain abuses of many kinds, and they are not always healthy spaces that promote human flourishing.
When a person gets divorced, whether with a heavy heart or frivolously, we must understand that the divorce doesn’t disqualify them from God’s grace or His love. It is in fact evidence of their very need of a Savior. The call is the same to all of us, single, married, divorced, or widowed, whatever our path has been to get to where we are today – to return to the Lord and to pursue fellowship with Him through Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit.
We are reminded that “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1, ESV), and God’s people are given the Spirit by whom we can walk in obedience to the Lord. That Spirit leads us away from “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (Galatians 5:19-21, ESV).
He leads us to “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things, there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:22-24, ESV). We are then reminded that “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25, ESV).
Our various experiences in life can both mark and define us, but we are more than those experiences and our choices. Thank the Lord that the God of the Bible is a God who renews and restores all things. It is my hope that this has helped you in understanding divorce in the Bible.
If you are in need of support through a difficult marriage, the difficult decision of divorce, or the aftermath of a divorce, feel free to contact me or one of the other Christian counselors in our online counselor directory.