March 27, 2019

The Ongoing Sin of Divorce

Gary Thomas — 

Heather married a Christian man who seemed zealous to serve God. He gave generous amounts of money to God’s work and even dreamed of eventually doing a reverse tithe—giving away ninety percent of his income and keeping ten percent for himself.

Today he’s still involved in missions work, still gives away a lot of money, but he sins against God in a particularly painful way every single day of his life. I don’t think he realizes it, but he does.

You see, he had an affair fifteen years ago, divorced Heather, and married the woman with whom he had the affair. Over a decade later, he and his new wife look like a model Christian couple and command a lot of respect, at least from humans. No one wants to judge them because the divorce happened so long ago.

From God’s perspective, things might look a little different.

Heather lives in a modest apartment and now must keep working well into her sixties. Understandably wary because she thought she already had married a “solid Christian man,” she has lost confidence in dating guys that seem fine on the outside because who knows what’s within?

Every day that she is alone in that apartment the sin of divorce hits her afresh. Every day she has to keep working into her sixties, the sin of divorce is renewed. Every day she tries to navigate the pain of adult children who have to “split” time between their parents—meaning she sees them about half as much as she otherwise might—the sin of divorce keeps hurting.

Heather is God’s daughter. Do you think God looks at what has happened and keeps happening to his daughter on a daily basis without anger? This is not to suggest that divorced women are helpless, weak, or unable to fend for themselves. Many do quite well for themselves and even thrive. In other instances, however, divorce can essentially create a “social widow” who becomes newly vulnerable. Her financial options are limited. Her ability to remarry may be compromised.

In the cases of these “social widows,” ex-husbands should take note: according to Scripture there are two demographic groups you don’t want to mess with or oppress, and one of those groups is widows. “Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan.  If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry.  My anger will be aroused…” (Ex. 22:22-24a)

When a divorced woman, a social widow, cries out to God, “He ensures that orphans and widows receive justice” (Deut. 10:18).

Society has changed quite a bit in the past four thousand years, often for the better, so not all women feel so vulnerable in the face of divorce. But God isn’t just about his daughters surviving; he wants them to thrive and anyone who stands in the way of his plans can expect appropriate discipline and opposition.

Men, when we marry a woman when she is at her youngest, strongest, and healthiest, and then pursue a divorce because we’ve gotten bored with her or think we’ve found someone more compatible, or younger, or any frivolous reason, it’s not one sin. It’s a daily ongoing sin. Every day you leave your ex-wife in less than cherishing circumstances is a day you have reneged on your vows and newly offend not just your Heavenly Father, but your Heavenly Father in Law.

Women, the same is true for you, as you’re married to one of God’s sons. The man may have disappointed you, but he’s still God’s son. He may have earned less than you thought he would or had more baggage than you realized, but there is no unbiblical divorce that’s a single sin; it’s a daily, on-going sin. While the Bible doesn’t have the same verses about widowers as it does about widows, it does paint Christian husbands as “dearly loved” by God and therefore under His watchful eye.

I mention “unbiblical divorce” because I’m not talking about those forced into divorce to flee abuse and behavior that was slowly destroying them. In those cases, divorce is a cure, not a weapon. In my upcoming book When to Walk Away: Finding Freedom From Toxic Relationships my friend Megan Cox describes her divorce from an abusive and unfaithful husband as a “gift from God.” I don’t want this post to add to the hurt divorced women and men already feel when God has given them refuge. This post addresses a particular kind of divorce, when divorce is used as a weapon instead of a cure.

It’s like chemotherapy: I hate that anyone has to undergo such drastic treatment, but I thank God for the lives chemotherapy has lengthened. It would be the height of cruelty, however, to give chemotherapy to someone who didn’t have cancer and who didn’t need it. Divorce is just like that: terrible, but sometimes necessary, and outright reprehensible if used when not needed.

We live in a culture of binary thinking—when I challenge divorce, I’m going to get pushback from those who feel I’m challenging them because of their own divorce. I’m not. I’ve spoken plenty about the church standing up for women in abusive marriages, in my books and several blog posts such as Enough is Enough. But sometimes, to be honest, anti-abuse advocates are so (understandably) sensitive about defending divorced women they become angry when I mention that most divorces are still a sin, as if I’m judging them. I’m not.

What I am saying here is that unbiblical divorce isn’t just a sin—it’s an ongoing sin. It’s the difference between an unmarried couple that gives into passion one night and has sex and the couple that decides to live together. Spiritually speaking, those are two different situations. Divorce is like the latter.

So, just as I advocated for those who have needed to find refuge in divorce, let’s remember that unbiblical divorce isn’t without consequences. I hate seeing women (and some men) left lonely and aching while some other spouse has “moved on” and finds full acceptance and respect without honestly considering not just the harm they’ve done, but the harm they keep on doing.

Ann Wilson, co-author with her husband of The Vertical Marriage, mentions several conversations with people who got divorced rather young, remarried, and now, looking back, realize they could have and should have made the first marriage work. They were just frustrated and disappointed, and the second marriage convinced them that no marriage is easy. We need to find a way to gently encourage such couples to hang in there and make it work. Without shaming abused women to stay in a destructive marriage, we also have to remind couples that the marriage covenant is a serious one that is designed by God to be broken only by death. We’re in a new phase of the church where, in order to avoid appearing judgmental, we may be becoming too lax and too “tolerant” of divorce for reasons that could and should be fixed. This grieves the heart of God and makes us weaker people while creating a weaker church and hurting children who grow up in broken homes.

So what if you’re that guy or that woman, who divorced your spouse when you know you shouldn’t have? If reconciliation is possible (i.e., if remarriage hasn’t occurred), you work your way back, as much as your ex is willing. If they’re not, you wait. How long? I can’t answer that in this blog, but any responsible answer is measured in years, not months (again, I’m not talking about those who escaped abusive marriage or sexually unfaithful marriages when it might be unwise and unsafe to ever return).

Men, if remarriage isn’t possible, I believe you owe it to your ex to make sure you’re not living better than she is. If someone has a bigger house (or a house instead of an apartment), it should be her. If someone drives a newer car, it should be her. If one of you has to keep working later in life, it should be you. You made a pledge that was between you, your wife, and God. The state’s legal dissolution doesn’t negate a covenant made in the sight of God. Repentance isn’t just about feeling sorry; it involves making things right, as much as it is in your power to do so.

I still stand by my blog post “Enough is Enough,” on not shaming women to stay in abusive marriages. In rare circumstances divorce can be a cure, but far more often it is used as a weapon without considering the ongoing sin that such a divorce represents. As people who made our pledge before a God whose memory is long and whose passion for his children is fierce, let’s live our lives accordingly.

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111 responses to The Ongoing Sin of Divorce

  1. I can’t thank you enough for writing this. My oldest sister who is a Christian divorced for non biblical reasons and has said, “ I wonder what would have happened with ua and our three children if we would have worked harder.” An older brother’s second wife talks of how she divorced her first husband because she grew bored. There are lonely, broken former spouses like you speak of in your article. The bone crushing pain across the years for my nieces and nephews has been awful. Alleluia, for the nieces and nephews who know Him, God in His great mercy is giving them marriages reflecting Him and for His glory.
    My husband and I have two college aged children and I am sending them this. Such an incredibly important word on marriage. Thank you.

  2. Gary, great article. I am a wife in a difficult marriage, have considered leaving but seeking support and guidance right now. I am a part of a few private Facebook groups and your article is a hot topic. So glad to have people talking about this so much!! I have experienced people telling me or others “you can’t stay” “he won’t change”… often times, in my opinion, over advocating divorce. I am glad we have come to a place where there is more support and real help for women in destructive and dangerous situations, but I can see first hand how we are dangerously close of losing the sanctity of marriage…on the other side of the spectrum! Thank you for speaking up, and I pray God brings you much encouragement for shedding light on sins the church is needing to address!

  3. This article is excellent. As a Wife who has been unbiblically physically, emotionally and financially abandoned by my Husband, I applaud you. It’s about time a Christian man called out this ongoing sin. I am also an abuse survivor and you have very clearly stated you are not addressing the issue of divorce and abuse here. I think some abuse advocates take it too far and start getting upset at ANY talk of ANY divorce being sinful. That is simply not true. There IS sinful and unbiblical divorce. Why did Jesus say that if you divorce your Wife except for sexual immorality, you cause her to commit adultery? Clearly God does not recognise all divorces as lawful, so much so, that he does not even recognise or validate the divorce on the guilty party’s side.

  4. Matthew Moses James March 28, 2019 at 11:08 am

    Marriage between a man and woman is GOD’S instrument in the earth to display HIS Glory! Marriage in GOD’S Eyes is agreement between the man and the woman becoming one (in agreement). (How can two walk together if they don’t agree). Disagreement between a man and woman is not of GOD (Amos 3:3). Marriage is GOD’S container in the Earth where HE put HIS Glory … HE created the marriage container for this purpose (marriage is not about the Earth it is about the Heavens). Every marriage vowed is not to GOD’S Glory. Many marriages are sensual and selfish with not much thought of GOD after the ceremony. How can a marriage honor GOD if the people in the marriage dishonor GOD by not making HIM LORD of their individual lives? Divorce is not a breakdown of the marriage covenant …divorce is a breakdown of the covenant LORDSHIP of JESUS in the lives of the married ones. GOD has an order in marriage that is often violated by one or both in the marriage. Here’s the order: FATHER GOD, then husband, then wife, then husband + wife, then children. The husband is the spiritual gate-keeper of the marriage. He is in the position of authority tempered by love as described in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8. The wife’s model is seen in Proverbs 31:10-31. The husband is the spiritual covering for the family (like a roof on a building). The wife supports the roof (submit and uphold the roof with her Proverbs 31:10-31 lifestyle) so that GOD has a perfect spiritual container to display HIS Glory for all to see. When husband and wife are fully surrendered (in agreement to JESUS LORD …. The Bible) it is impossible to be in disagreement with each other. When husband and wife are agreement, GOD will do greater exploits in the earth. One will put 1000 to flight, but two will put 10,000 to flight. Matthew 18:19 … if I and another Believer agree about a matter it would be done of our FATHER … but if the wife who I am in covenant with agree with me about a matter, our FATHER GOD’S Glory will shine brighter because we are two made one. Divorce is a tool of rebellion that is opposed to GOD’S rule in the lives of the married Believers. Disagreement between husband and wife (where the wife dishonors her husband’s authority, or the husband fail to love his wife according to 1 Corinthians 13:4-8) violates GOD’S edict of oneness (agreement). When the wife seeks to be the husband’s authority, or the husband submits unto his wife voice (like Ahab and Jezebel’s story or Adam and Eve’s story) … this leads to (Ichabod … GOD’S Glory is departed … 1 Samuel 4:21). Once GOD’S Glory is departed the marriage it becomes an empty container filled with sin and unholy earthly woes and consequences which leads to divorce. Divorce denies JESUS Rule in the individual lives of the married Believers. It is good to note that either one or both in the marriage becomes potential unbelievers in the divorce scenario … (1 Corinthians 7:15).

  5. As a woman raised to believe you stayed no matter what, I struggled for years with a porn addicted husband who taught in the church, preached and had advanced bible degrees. I was ingrained with rhetoric of “pray him through it”and “make yourself attractive to him” causing me great pain and anguish. He attended counseling, workshops and accountability all the while still enmeshed in porn and emotional unfaithfulness to me. It wasn’t until 3 years ago (17 years of marriage) that I had to call domestic violence. This addiction, over time, grew so strong that he didn’t value my emotional or physical safety. I took my children and fled and sought out my church leaders for help. Initially, I don’t think they believed me (and from past church experiences I was bracing myself for the words “take him back”) but over time they saw his true character. Thankfully, my pastor and elders listened and had they not, I’m feel it could have caused a spiritual breakdown and faith in the Church. My honesty and willingness to work with them has helped to change how our leaders work with abused women! They started revising the church documents, made statements from the pulpit about not tolerating abuse, and have financially helped me at times as a divorced woman with 3 children. So even in spite of my pain, God has used this for a greater good. And I am thankful.

  6. Courageous of you Gary to write an insightful perspective of how divorce is rejection. Culture portrays all those who hurt from divorce; spouse, children, and parents as weak because they are wounded which is unfair and not compassionate. Not only are those hurt by the individual who betrayed and rejected the marriage, but outsider who promote that individual had a right to leave for selfish reasons. The fairy-tale, romantic, fantasy married life portrayed in secular culture through movies and social media is one of the reasons affairs occur. When one spouse who has health or emotional problems, they are too often left unsupported by a spouse. Any wonder a child would not be able to trust his parents, they believe when I’m imperfect I will be betrayed and rejected too? Why do we as a society accept women and men who selfishly go after a married spouse? That person destroyed a marriage and family, most importantly took away a child’s parent, home, stability, and trust in everyone.

  7. My husband filed for divorce telling me that he will find a new wife and repent at that time. Its NOT repentance when you are happy you got what you wanted. People think God can be manipulated. He knows the heart. This is the message the church is sending people. Do it and say sorry after, at least you got what you wanted.

  8. Kevin Clingman March 28, 2019 at 4:14 am

    While I understand and agree with the points you’re making it’s important to remember that with every story or in this case divorce there’s his story, her story and somewhere in between is the truth. Many times when reading articles or hearing stories about divorce only one side of the story is told. It’s important to remember both parties whether they acknowledge it or not contributed to the demise of that marriage. We must also get to the root cause of the divorce. For example, if there was infidelity then dig deep and truly understand what led to the infidelity.

    • You make it sound like there is ever an excuse for infidelity or ongoing abuse

      • Leona, as I read his comments, I did not see anything to indicate he excused abuse.

        As for infidelity, no, there are no excuses, but there are plenty of reasons one might find themselves there.

        I am speaking as someone who has been guilty of infidelity. Infidelity is never right or good, but it is in confessing my own infidelity that we began the difficult process of rebuilding our marriage on solid ground. My infidelity is not excused, but it did expose many areas where neither was faithful to our vows. There is a great deal in those vows besides forsaking all others.

  9. Gary, I feel like this is fear mongoring. To call something an ongoing sin with no pointing towards hope is dangerous. I understand divorce is sinful and the consequences of that sin are daily afterward, but to suggest that one is in a constant state of sin with no hope of redemption from that sin if they stay divorced is unbiblical. Also to redefine what widows means in the Bible is dangerous.

    I do understand the heart of the message. I think. And I don’t agree that anyone should leave a marriage to find a person younger and I believe that you should definitely not try to put yourself in a better situation than your ex if you are divorced. I believe there are life long consequences to the decision to divorce. But I just think this particular message is unbiblical in a few points.

    Can you please point me to scripture that tells me that divorcing a woman makes them a widow and where divorce is a daily sin with no hope of redemption other than remarrying your ex?

    • Matt, I would never say there is “no hope” of redemption. And I don’t believe the blog implies that. What I mean by ongoing sin is that a hard heart calls into question true repentance. By extension, I’d use 1 John 3:17: “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?” If the offending ex spouse feels badly about a poor situation an ex is in, or worse, is totally apathetic or gleeful about it, but doesn’t do anything to help, John himself would ask how that person could know the love of God. To make a lifelong promise to something and then renege on that promise when it becomes difficult is a sin that continues. Does Jesus forgive our sins? Of course. But do you want to remain in sin? I hope not.

      let me ask you this: is a marriage covenant LESS binding than a work agreement? Of course not. So consider Deuteronomy 24:15: “Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to the LORD against you, and you will be guilty of sin.” When I pledged to share “all my worldly goods” with my wife but stop sharing, is that something God isn’t concerned about? Is that promise worth LESS than when I tell a worker I’ll give him a full day’s wage but make him wait?

      God cares about the poor being neglected, widows being neglected, and workers getting the shaft. Is it even possible He doesn’t feel the same about caring for ex-wives as there is need? I’m not talking about situations where someone is facing the consequences of their own actions; I’m talking about when we have broken our promise and have hardened our hearts.

      What I think is happening is that people are inferring I’m saying there’s no forgiveness here. That’s not my intention. Jesus forgives the most egregious of sins, for which I, above everyone else, am most in need. But forgiveness isn’t the issue here. It’s righteousness. It’s testimony. It’s trying to make right what you’ve let go wrong. All I’m saying is even if you can’t fix it, it’s your duty to address the most negative consequences as you are able. A true Christian shouldn’t ask, “Will this send me to hell?” He or she should ask, “What will most please and glorify God?”

      • Thank you for speaking up for those of us that have been abandoned. For those of us who have children who have been left without needs being met while we watch that other party take lavish vacations and drive brand new sports car. This made me cry there’s so much pain in being abandoned and yet you just showed us what Gods heart is for us. Thank you!

      • Hurting Helpmate that never had a mate April 3, 2019 at 4:43 am

        That’s good stuff, Gary. Very good stuff. Thank you for your bravery to tell the Biblical truth.

  10. Gary, you wrote. “I’m not talking about those who escaped abusive marriage or sexually unfaithful marriages …” I was saddened that you specified “sexually unfaithful”. How about emotional affairs, where a husband has a long-term relationship with another woman, that does not turn sexual? This husband has also been unfaithful to his wife; this relationship has also brought lies and deceit to the marriage. Yet, some people would say since it was not a sexual affair, that it would be an unbiblical divorce.

    This also brings up the topic of emotional abuse versus physical abuse. How do you define emotional abuse? Are years and years of lies and deceit “abusive”, even if it doesn’t include yelling and screaming?

  11. Your article is thought-provoking. I understand it addresses a specific kind of situation. In my personal circles, I know of two separate yet similar situations where divorce occurred due to addiction issues. Both of the ex-wives continue to struggle in their addictions, while their former husbands have moved on, re-married, healed and rebuilt their finances and their families. In both cases it was the addicted ex-wife who said they wanted a divorce. In both cases, the addicted ones continue to lament and seek sympathy for their predicaments. In one of these cases, the (ex) husband put his ex-wife through rehab 3x, and in the course of the 21-year marriage suffered financial devastation and infidelity numerous times. In such a situation, do you think the ex-husband still has responsibility to support (financially or otherwise) the addicted ex-wife? What about his responsibility to provide for and honor his current wife? Also, what if there are adult children who are willing and capable to provide support for their mom? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Thank you.

    • Carol,

      This is a good and fair question. I’m not the best person to answer all possible scenarios however. Claude and Townsend address a lot of these issues in their Boundaries books, so I’d point you there. In one section they talk about allowing the “law of sowing and reaping.” That’s an entirely different situation from Heather’s (in the blog), who was neither an addict nor unfaithful in any way.

      While this is a good question, I have to keep the comments focused on the actual blog, or we could circle the universe with scenarios. So I won’t go into more detail than pointing you to the Boundary books.

  12. So why does it always seem the ones that committed the affairs and then both divorce their spouses and then marry, prosper while the spouse that was faithful and fought for the marriage suffer?

    • Elizabeth,

      That hasn’t been my experience. This is all anecdotal, of course, but I’ve seen some very rich marriages proceed out of two people who have been victimized by divorce, get healed and move on into a second marriage. Those who use divorce as a weapon seem to me to most often use it more than once–i.e., on each other. It may take a while, but ultimately, I think character matters. Poor character will eventually show itself. But I don’t have any studies to back this up.

    • Yes. It seems that way.

  13. My husband and I lament over his parents divorce over 40 years ago. So many sad times…weddings, grandchildren…etc. I wrote a song recently after some of our dear friends, married over 25 years divorced. I have now watched them play out what my in laws have lived. The unfairness. The children having to choose. Weddings and graduations where no one can sit together. The song is called “Who Gets the Memories”. I’ll see if I can share it in comments.

  14. I am the one you speak of, after 24 years of marriage he met a woman at work and decided to leave me and our son in order to start his new life with her. He never once told me he wasn’t happy, in fact he made me believe that we had a great marriage . He has not checked on me, he has not financially helped me, he has left me with the house and yard responsibilities, car issues, it’s like I meant nothing to him. I have a great church family and I have grown closer to God Thru this journey. I still wonder how someone that shared their vowels with me, someone who made the promise of forever, could disgard me and treat me so cruel. I loved being a wife, I loved our family. He hasn’t called and checked on me for 2 1/2 years. It’s like I am dead to him. Thank you for your kind words and for giving a voice to those that are hurting, confused and left while the other spouse is enjoying their new happily ever after life. I know God used your words to speak to me.

    • Praying for Ann, very unfair situations and believe someone needs to stand up to the throw away culture of marriages. If more people would not accept actions of a spouse who does that, they would feel the consequences of their cruel selfish behavior. Other woman not respecting a married man is off limits is also a problem. Marriage is sacred covenant that deserves respect. Those who disrespect the marriage vows feel entitlement to do as they wish, however they should feel the consequences of their behavior as well. You are not alone and thought of with great respect and admiration. Your son will benefit from your good character! As Gary commented One’s character is reflected in their actions and treatment of their family! God Bless

  15. I’m not so sure. My parents are going through this. My father had an affair and continues to have this inappropriate relationship with that same woman. My parents separated the past 3 years. They don’t talk to each other. My mother now lives with my brother and sometimes stays with me for a period of time, because she cannot financially supports herself. When a person commits adultery, we often points out that he/she has committed a terrible sin and that sin destroyed their marriage and shattered the vows they had. Everyone sees the pain of the other spouse and often sides with the hurting spouse. No one looks into what has been going on in their relationship. I don’t excuse my father’s sin and choices; I don’t agree with what he did, and it has brought me so much pain. But I also witnessed my mother verbally, mentally and emotionally abused my father. I witnessed them both coming at each other like they hated each other. I witnessed the bitterness and hatred my mother gave my father. I witnessed how my mother neglected my father. I witnessed my father neglected my mother. He was trying to make it work, trying to stay in the marriage but she would not stop making him feel like the worst person in the world and reminding him of his sins. While she does not acknowledge any of hers. My father is a hard worker and he has been providing for our entire family his whole life. He continues to work hard and still sends money to my mother after their separation. My mother refuses to do anything different, she refuses to learn to take care of herself, she refuses to learn to do new things, she refuses to make new friends, she refuses to do anything at all to make the best out of the situation despite all of the support and help my brother and I have been giving her. She is manipulative and bitter even towards my brother and I. She’s angry at us because we still love our dad. She has caused my brother and I so much pain and stress. Yet we still love her, take care of her and support her. She has always been abusive(verbally, physically, mentally, emotionally) to my brother and I throughout our childhood but we both forgave her a long time ago. We feel her pain and the hardship that she has endured. But we now see her personality through the lens of my dad’s eyes. So it’s hard for me to just focus on my father’s sin because he has moved on and continues to go on in life. It takes two to make a marriage and it also takes two to break one. It’s heart breaking when a spouse commits adultery, and moves on; that’s solely that spouse’s choice and it’s not the other spouse’s fault. But let’s not always assume that the orher spouse is solely the victim.

  16. Thank you Gary for bringing light to this issue!

  17. Great article Gary. I see the damage the children suffer long term after divorce. It is an ongoing sin and way too easily accepted in the church as an easy way out. I know too many women who are in the situation you describe later in life due to a divorce earlier in life. Your compassion is truly the heart of how God sees this.

  18. Rebecca Reinhardt March 27, 2019 at 7:07 pm

    Thank you for bringing a fresh perspective to this much-needed conversation! I’ve read and continue to recommend your books, and I always appreciate your blog posts… being encouraged to view life from a heavenly perspective is like a breath of fresh air!

  19. I was a pastor whose wife left after 32 years. She acknowledges it was for unbiblical reasons. You are right that the sin of divorce lives on every day in many many people, especially the children. I am very happily remarried but I would not recommend divorce to anyone except for biblical reasons and then only after a best effort on the part of both parties.

    • Can you clarify what you mean by “best effort on the part of both parties”? My ex-husband had relational ruin staring him in the face, yet he was completely unwilling to even acknowledge his part in it, let alone make an effort to address it. He didn’t want to change. If I had to wait to divorce until he made any effort, let alone “best effort”, I’d be dead by now – either by suicide or homicide.

      Please educate yourself on the tactics of abusers. The attitude you are presenting in your last sentence can be extremely dangerous for women in abuse situations.