Handling an Unhappy Marriage
Marriage is the most intimate of all human relations. No two people are closer than a husband and wife. Consequently, what truly goes on in a marriage is known only to the two people involved. Therefore, it is unwise for outsiders to dictate how a married person should respond to the marital relationship. As mentioned above, even Jesus refrained from issuing laws on temporal behavior and human relationships.
In the area of marriage and divorce, Jesus’ opponents sought to entrap him by challenging his agreement with, and acceptance of, the laws of Moses. We read this account:
“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.”
- Matthew 19:3-6
Here, Jesus explains the intimacy of marriage – there is, in fact, no closer relationship. The two become one. He further reminds them that no third party has the authority or the right to ‘put it apart.’ Once Jesus reaffirmed the enduring intent of marriage, the Pharisees pounced on the opportunity to expose Jesus as an opponent of the law of Moses:
“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 19:7-9
Jesus did not oppose Moses; instead, Jesus emphasized the divine will and clearly identified the type of sin under the law that one would commit if they divorced and remarried, when there was no fornication – that is, sex outside of the marital bond.
This exchange provides insight into the matter of marriage, divorce and separation. Here are a few points we can glean from this exchange:
- That from the beginning, it is God’s will that a man and woman who enter into marriage stay married as one flesh.
- That if one of the mates engages in fornication, the marriage could be dissolved, and the mates are free to remarry.
- That if one of the mates obtains a divorce, when there has been no fornication, and marries another, that mate has committed adultery.
- That a marriage could be dissolved even when there is no fornication, and neither party will have sinned, unless they marry someone else.
- That, even though the permanency of marriage is God’s will, Moses allowed a way out of an undesirable marriage, apparently without divine disfavor.
Today, we are not under the law of Moses – whether it be to acquire its benefits or suffer its maledictions. We are free people, operating under the law of the spirit and we are counseled to exercise that freedom wisely. And we remind you that the things set forth here are written to spiritual men and women who are seeking a spiritual resolution to a difficult marriage, rather than to physical persons who are merely seeking a loophole:
“Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves.”
– 1 Peter 2:16
“You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.”
– Galatians 5:13-15
“Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. 8 Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.”
– Galatians 6:7-8
Thus, it appears that we have a measure of freedom when it comes to making a decision to separate from a marriage mate. But with that freedom comes a great deal of responsibility. We should be careful not to make such a decision based on purely fleshly desires, or, as the scripture says, we will reap corruption.
The counsel is that we are to do all things ‘with a view to the spirit.’ Hence, a marital mate must consider the effect on his or her spirit in deciding whether to remain in, or depart from, an unhappy marriage. Some factors such a person would consider are: What effect would separation have on my relationship and freeness of speech with the Father and the Christ? Will it enhance or inhibit my ability to pursue ‘the things of the spirit?’ Have I truly applied spiritual counsel in my marriage? Have I truly carried my own load in this marriage? Would remaining in the marriage result in physical, emotional, mental or spiritual scarring to myself or to any children of the marriage?
All Christians are to be ‘lights of the world.’ (Matthew 5:14-16) But if we are in a situation that could choke out or extinguish our inner flame, our priority is to the Father. In the overall scheme of things, a marriage is a temporary arrangement that will not survive the flesh (Matthew 22:29-30), whereas our relationship with the Father is eternal.
The Apostle Paul discussed marriage and separation, but refrained from laying down new laws. Instead, he did give some personal instructions, designed to coach, teach or educate, in this regard:
“To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife. To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?”
– 1 Corinthians 7:10-16
Marriage is not a prison bond or a life sentence on death row, where one waits for the other to die. Such a view has resulted in untold misery and led to the actual death of a mate for the sole purpose of escaping an unhappy marriage. To that extent, separation functions as the social safety valve which prevents worse situations from occurring.
The root cause of unhappy marriages is that our society has not properly educated our young people on how to have a successful marriage. And so long as we fail our children in this regard, and allow their unwise and immature ideals to dictate whether to enter into marriage, just so long will separation and divorce remain prevalent.
Rather than seeking to judge and punish one another on the matter of divorce and separation, a religious association will serve its members best by providing real, practical and constructive marriage preparation and counseling. And if we begin with our youth, we have a better probability that this question of remaining in or abandoning an unhappy marriage will become less and less frequent.
Finally, as with all temporal problems, the solution lies in our relationship with God. When we know we are children of the highest personality in the universe, and heirs with our Creator God, Jesus Christ, we are moved from the heart to imitate our Father and we are receptive to the guidance of Holy Spirit, including the indwelling Spirit of the Father and the Spirit of Truth of the Christ. When we do so, even if circumstances lead us to separate from an unhappy marriage, we can continue in unbroken communion with our Father.