Divorce is a painful subject. That’s why I think I’d better say where I’m coming from up front—my parents were divorced, and someone I love dearly is on the verge of divorce as I write. I’m married, but there were times when I feared we were going to wind up in the courts as well. So there’s that.
What do Christians think about divorce? As you know, there’s a huge spectrum of views and practices, but I’m going to try to go for the basics—for what the Bible teaches, and how we try to live around that.
Before we jump in, I’m going to say one thing. If you are not a Christian, this is not about you. Not a word of this is intended to judge you or criticize you or comment on your personal life at all. Feel free to munch popcorn and observe the crazy things Christians do and try to do. We are the ones who are signed up to following Jesus and to taking his words as our guidance. So feel free to get judgmental on us! That would be totally appropriate.
You can’t really understand divorce from a Christian perspective until you have some idea of what Christians think about marriage. So let’s give that a minute.
Marriage is more than just a living arrangement or a contract between two people. According to the Bible, it’s a new creation, a new union—you could almost say a new living thing which becomes real when two people marry. If all goes well, this union is going to grow and flourish and sustain both people, and the children who may be born to the marriage. When things work out this way, it’s a beautiful sight—think of the couples you’ve met who are celebrating their fifty year anniversaries and still love each other. There’s a reason they end up on social media with everyone making “a-w-w-wwww” faces at them and posting hearts.
When Things Go Wrong
But the flip side of this is pretty dark. When things go wrong, and that union is broken—well, it’s a lot more like an amputation than anything else. Generally speaking, it hurts like hell. It rarely heals cleanly. There are aspects of it that drag on for years, especially if there are children involved. And it takes years to adjust to the new reality.
That won’t be news to you. No doubt you’ve seen the pain in your own family or circle of friends. Divorce hurts, divorce sucks. Are you surprised that God agrees with you? When people asked Jesus about divorce, he answered by describing what God wanted from the beginning—“ Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Matthew 19:4-6) And when they asked, “So why did God allow divorce anyway?” they got the answer, “Because of your hard hearts.”
Dark Times, Dark Solutions
And that’s the core of the issue—the human heart, and our tendency to do evil. Marriages end for a whole host of reasons—abuse, violence, adultery, lying, mishandling money, emotional affairs, disrespect, addiction, mental illness, boredom, or “growing apart,” just for starters. Some of these things can’t be helped (like certain mental illnesses). But most of them are the result of personal actions and choices, often over a long period of time. The environment of the marriage becomes toxic, polluted—sometimes by the actions of one partner, sometimes by both. And divorce starts looking like an option.
So Why Not Just Do It?
So you might be asking, “Why not just do it? Cut your losses and be done with it.” It’s not that easy, as we said above. Divorce is no quick, clean cut. It’s like having your leg ripped off—not clean, not painless, not easily healed.
Sometimes there is no other choice but divorce—if your spouse is abusing you and your children, and there’s other no way to put a stop to it, you do what you have to do to save lives. And sometimes we don’t get to make the choice—there are plenty of people whose partners have walked out on them and refuse to lift a finger to reconcile. It only takes one person to make a divorce—and the person “making” the divorce isn’t always the same as the person who files the paperwork. If you’re in this boat, we are so sorry. A lot of us have been in it too.
The Middle Ground
But then there are the marriages which could possibly be saved, if both partners put the effort in. And yes, it’s a boatload of effort, and it’s no surprise that a lot of people just want out. But here’s where God says, “Whoa! Hold on a bit.” [Just a reminder—we are talking about what Christians do and believe, not what non-Christians do and believe. This is not about you. If you choose to get involved with God, divorce is totally not the issue to start with.]
To those who believe, divorce is marked with a bunch of “don’t go there” signs. Why? We’ve already talked about the pain and damage it tends to cause. There’s also a lot of justice issues that can come up.
Like it or not, divorce has certain justice issues baked into it—at least, divorce as we practice it now. In almost all countries, there is a gender bias on who gets the kids—the mother in some countries, the father in others. Either way it can be deeply unfair to one parent, not to mention the kids.
There is also a problem with standard of living after the divorce. On average, American women end up poorer after a divorce, while men see their standard of living rise. (This is not true in every individual case—this is a statistical average, which means it won’t apply to everybody.) The U.S. Census Bureau notes that “Men are over 50% less likely than women to receive welfare following divorce and are half as likely to live in poverty. Since the children in the survey were over 2.5 times more likely to live with their mother after divorce than with their father, it should come as no surprise that they too are more likely than other children to live in poverty.” There is evidence to suggest that a similar situation exists in most other countries as well. And in cultures where children normally live with their mothers after divorce, the problem affects the children as well.
There are ways to try to fix these problems, and the courts do what they can. But the problems persist. And so any Christian considering divorce must also consider the justice questions: How is this going to impact my kids? How is this going to impact my ex in terms of money, housing, provision for children, visitation, healthcare, transportation… the list goes on and on and on. And since God calls us as Christians to love our enemies, we can’t close our eyes to the problems or pretend we didn’t notice, no matter how angry we are with our ex-spouses.
But Then What Do Christians Do?
“But then what are Christians supposed to do?” you might be asking. “A bad marriage can be hell.” Yes, we totally get that. Some of us live that, and we know by experience. And we use the ordinary answers—we seek counseling, try to talk together, and so forth. Sometimes—not always—those things work. From my own background we also try grabbing hold of God (mentally, I mean!), praying our hearts out, asking Jesus for help, talking with compassionate Christian friends, and the like. Things can get better. And God wants them to get better, because living in marital hell is not what he wants for us either. So we ask for his help.
But as you know, it only takes one person to make a divorce, and that person might not be us. It’s not something that is totally under our control. If this happens to us, we grieve. We try to take care of others involved, like children. We try to do the practical things, like protecting ourselves legally. And we take refuge in God, who is close to the broken-hearted, and who never turns anyone in need away (Psalm 34:18; Isaiah 61:1-3; Matthew 11:28-29; John 6:37).
No doubt you know Christians who have been divorced, and some of them have handled it better than others. And since nobody knows the real situation except the people who have lived it, it’s impossible to judge from the outside. But this is what we believe, and how we try to live. Because we do love God, and we do want to follow in the way he has for us. A lot of times we don’t manage it, sometimes for totally innocent reasons, sometimes not. But we still try. Because we know he loves us and forgives us, and because we are trying to grow into the kind of people who do those things as well.