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When Love Fails

God made marriage, so it should be honored.

From the editor

Given that Valentine's Day is this coming Sunday, many of you will probably be addressing themes like love, relationships, dating, and marriage. But as you well know, not everyone in your congregation is living on cloud nine when it comes to such things. For example, many in your congregation have felt the sting of divorce. But what a difficult topic to address from the pulpit! This week we're featuring a thoughtful, responsible sermon on the issue. May it be of great help to you in your preaching on this painful topic.


Today we come to the difficult subject of divorce. This is not an easy subject and is not to be taken lightly. I invite you to listen to the entire sermon with an open mind. Jesus' teaching in Matthew 19 unfolds in a logical and helpful fashion to touch on the main issues we need to address today. I want to specifically address a few groups today: (1) those whose marriages have failed; (2) those whose marriages are in crisis—there is pain and confusion, and you want out; (3) those who are married but not in crisis, because you will face crises; and (4) those who know and love the people I've just named, because we're all called to rally around them through hard times.

The ancient context

Matthew 19:1-2 says, "When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan. Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there."

Jesus' ministry is growing. When ministry grows, hard questions get asked. In Matthew 19:3, "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?'" Today, the question gets asked, "Are there biblical grounds for divorce?" That's the question we are going to do our best to answer from the Scriptures today. In fact, I've had a couple of people ask recently what our stance is on divorce, because they've been wounded deeply in this area.

Before we start, however, I want you to notice the attitude of the Pharisees: they "came to him to test him." They are testing Jesus, looking for a way to get at him. They don't come ready to listen and learn. I encourage us today not to have this attitude. Instead, we need to learn. So if you come with your mind made up and arms folded or with a chip on your shoulder or looking for some way to criticize or wanting to leverage what you learn today against someone else, please reconsider your attitude. Don't be like the Pharisees. Let's be humble together as we look at God's word.

The ancient world had a similar debate about divorce that we do today. Let's look at the text again: "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?" This is a statement of the "any-cause divorce," which was the most common approach to divorce in the time of Jesus. Today, we call it "no-fault divorce." You don't have to give a reason; you just get divorced.

In ancient Judaism there were two main schools of teaching that had differing interpretations of Deuteronomy 24:1, which was one of the main Old Testament passages on divorce. Most in the culture followed the teaching of Rabbi Hillel, who said you could divorce your wife (it was always the husband who did the divorcing) for "any cause," even if it was because she burned your toast. One of the rabbis in this popular school of thought said you could divorce your wife if you found another woman more attractive. Needless to say, this school of thought did not end in Jesus' day, but remains part of our culture today. Some in the time of Jesus followed Rabbi Shammai, who said you could only divorce your wife if she was unfaithful.

When Jesus taught here in Matthew 19 on the subject of divorce, he was specifically interacting with the cultural phenomena of "any cause divorce." I think Jesus would speak equally to our culture today on the rampant nature of divorce.

Forty years ago, California led the nation in becoming the first state to create "no-fault" divorce. About 120,000 California couples got divorced last year, according to the Judicial Council of California. I think these Scriptures speak to us right where we're at today, don't you?

God made marriage, so it should be honored.

Jesus' starting place on teaching about marriage is from Genesis, when things are perfect in the Garden of Eden. Jesus endorses the perfect picture of marriage that God created before there was any sin in the world:

"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. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate." (Matthew 19:4-6)

God authored marriage. This is one of the crucial ways God created for us to be in community, and it's the only way God created humankind to enjoy sexual pleasure and to reproduce.

According to this Scripture, if you are married—whether or not you are a Christian or have a good or bad marriage—God was present at your wedding. God was working in those vows. God was knitting the two of you together. There is no stronger language in the world to talk about marriage than what Jesus says here: "So they are no longer two but one." Regardless of what anyone else says about your marriage, that's what God says about your marriage.

Because God created marriage this way, the married couple should not be separated. This is a command. It's the clear teaching of Jesus. Hear it again: "Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate" (Matthew 19:6). That's why we hear other passages from the Bible like from Malachi 2:16: "'I hate divorce,' says the Lord God." That is strong language. Notice that God did not say that he hates divorced people! The Scripture is clear on this: God loves divorced people, but he hates divorce.

One of the reasons he hates divorce is because of all the pain it causes. In a recent poll of Californians, 4 out of 5 kids from divorced families emphasized the negative impact of the divorce on their lives. You've heard the stats before, that kids from divorced families are more likely to drop out of school, abuse drugs and alcohol, and be involved in crime. Of course our God can and does intervene—but why not follow his original plan in the first place?

This is from an email from one of our elders who is divorced and now remarried:

Even though it has been many years (all of the kids are grown), there is still lingering hurt and distrust present in the children. I firmly believe divorce is from the devil, and anyone who contemplates it should think not twice but 70 times 7 before going down that path. God has done miracles in our hearts, but the scars are still visible.

As a church we are radically committed to marriages working. That's why we had our marriage retreat this weekend. That's why we have our Growing Great Marriages class. That's why we have our Marriage Crisis Intervention ministry to mentor couples in crisis. Please, get involved in one of these for the sake of your marriage, which God created!

Your marriage is worth the fight. Two-thirds of Californians who are divorced say they could have worked harder to save their marriage. Don't live with that regret. Do the work now. Do it on the front end. Do whatever it takes not to become a statistic.

Hardness of heart is the issue in divorce.

In the next verse we see the real issue behind divorce: hardness of heart. This section starts off with the Pharisees saying Moses commanded divorce, but Jesus clarifies that Moses permitted divorce. This is a huge distinction. Look at it here in the text:

"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." (Matthew 19:7-8)

Rabbinic Judaism required a husband to divorce an unfaithful wife. Jesus opposed that requirement. Marriage is such a high value for Jesus that he insists that nothing requires divorce. Restoration of the marriage is always the ideal. Restoration of the marriage is always the goal. Restoration of the marriage is always possible.

I could tell you tons of stories of couples, who, facing even infidelity, survived and thrived—even though friends and family said, "You must divorce them for what they've done!"

Again Jesus goes back to God's original design: "it was not this way from the beginning" (Matthew 19:8). Again, hear God's heart for you: marriage is God's idea. Marriage is God's ideal. God's plan for marriage is worth fighting for, it's worth working for, it's worth everything you can give it.

The real issue in divorce, according to the Bible, is hardness of heart. Look at verse 8 again: "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard." We don't have time to unpack all the theology in this verse, but let me just say that Jesus is focusing in on the key issue in divorce: God allowed divorce because of hardness of heart. Because at least one partner was persistently and deliberately unrepentant and unwilling to follow God's ways, God allowed the other partner the option of divorce.

Again, the issue is not adultery or abuse or addiction or any other sin in marriage. These are not a checklist for divorce. These do not allow you to say, "He's abusive, so I get to divorce him," or "She's been unfaithful, so I get to divorce her." That's simply not what the Scriptures teach. There can always be redemption, there can always be forgiveness, there can always be restoration, because there is always hope for the marriage, regardless of the offense. The question, rather, is whether there is hardness of heart—the continual unwillingness to repent and change and be healed. It is hardness of heart, above all else, that breaks a marriage. This brings us to the final, and in my opinion, most uncomfortable piece of this passage.

The biblical grounds for divorce

Jesus then teaches on what constitutes a biblical ground for divorcing your spouse: "I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery" (Matthew 19:9). Jesus gives what the scholars call the "exception clause" here when he says, "except for marital unfaithfulness." As with all the material in this sermon, there are a number of people who are good scholars and good Christians who have differing views on this passage. But I think we're in the middle of evangelical Christian teaching when we say there are some situations in which divorce can be allowed, based on this passage and others in the Bible. That is to say, there are indeed some biblical grounds for divorce.

I want to reiterate that just because there are some biblical grounds for divorce, that never means we take divorce lightly or give in to the culture of "any-cause divorce." Anything that may be grounds for divorce can be forgiven both by God and by the spouse who is wronged; none of them require divorce. The ultimate issue is hardness of heart—the ongoing unwillingness of a partner to yield in one of these grounds for divorce.

With all that being said, this passage introduces the first of three biblical grounds for divorce: adultery. Those who are unfaithful in their marriage have put their marriage in jeopardy. Combined with a hard heart, adultery can create a biblical grounds for one spouse to divorce another. It's painful, it's not ideal, and yet in these cases the one who divorces their unrepentant, adulterous spouse is not dishonoring God or living contrary to biblical teaching.

I want to make a side note here about those who, in following God's Word and submitting to godly Christian leaders, divorce their spouses. You need to know that God, who himself divorced Israel (Jeremiah 3:6-8), does not criticize the legal process of divorce. The one who breaks the vows and refuses to repent is responsible for breaking the marriage. The legal process of divorce is just giving closure to the spiritual reality. God feels the pain of divorce from the inside, as a divorcee. He knows your pain and wants to heal you.

Again, I don't ever want to condone a quick or easy process of divorce, even in the situation of adultery. I've been connected to three situations where one spouse committed adultery and then the very spouse who committed adultery was angry and upset at being found out and lashed out at the partner who was faithful. You'd think those marriages would be over now. But not one of them is. The offended spouse stuck it out for weeks or months, got godly support, prayed, and fought for the marriage—and the offending spouse came around, deeply repented, and radically changed their lives. All three of those couples have thriving marriages today.

The second grounds for biblical divorce comes from 1 Corinthians 7:15: abandonment. Jesus in Matthew 19 was dealing specifically with the any-cause debate about adultery based on the Deuteronomy 24:1 passage. He was not creating some ironclad list of a single exception, namely that the only biblical grounds for divorce is adultery. Instead, he was dealing with the particular question and the particular passage it was referencing. Paul, in , deals with another set of circumstances.

Some of the Christians in Corinth were married to non-Christians, and some of those non-Christians abandoned their spouses. They simply left. Paul uses language consistent with the divorce certificates of the day and says this: "But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace" (1 Corinthians 7:15). The phrase "is not bound" was common in divorce certificates of the first century. It was how they said, "you are free to marry again." To state it simply, if your spouse leaves you and persistently will not reunite with you (this is the hard-heartedness issue coming out again), then there may be biblical grounds for divorce. I have a friend whose husband left her over a decade ago and never came back, never made contact, just vanished off the face of the earth. Consistently there's been no effort, no contact, and no response. Paul is writing about these situations and saying there is biblical grounds for divorce in these cases.

The third biblical ground for divorce I hesitate even to bring up because I worry that it is misused so often. It comes from a passage in Exodus 21: abuse or neglect.

If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her conjugal love. And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money. (Exodus 21:10-11)

This Scripture is dealing with situations when a spouse refuses to provide materially, emotionally, or intimately for the other or when there is active physical or emotional harm. We have to be super careful here. This is all of us sometimes. That's another reason why there is no checklist for divorceable offenses and why we always involve godly people in our marriage crises so we can gain perspective and wisdom and not overreact. But when there is persistent abuse or neglect in the marriage, coupled with a hard-hearted spouse who is unwilling to repent and change and heal the marriage—in these cases there may be biblical grounds for divorce.

I would never stand up here and judge from the pulpit whether your situation justifies divorce or not. While every situation is painful, each one is also different. That's why we have marriage mentors ready to walk with you and elders ready to meet with you.

I met with a woman one time who had a perfect example of this. Her husband had gone off the deep end into addiction, spending all their money, leaving the home for extended periods, and causing all sorts of wreckage in the family. Companies to whom he owed money made frequent collection calls and sent collectors to show up at the house late at night banging on the door, looking for him. She had to huddle the kids together and call the police. After months and months of this she came to my office and sat down with the most gracious attitude. I couldn't believe it. She said, "I want to understand what the Bible says on the subject of divorce, because I am committed to doing the right thing. I will submit to your counsel." We talked through her situation. We wrestled with the Scriptures. Throughout it all, I was shocked that she wasn't angry—she had done the deep work of forgiving her husband, even though he had consistently been unrepentant and manipulative and unwilling to change. She shared with me an email she wrote her husband, sharing God's grace and forgiveness with him, giving the name of yet another counselor, and seeking to help spare him complete destruction. Most likely, she will divorce him—and the biggest reason is his heart is hard and unwilling to change.


A number of people have asked, "If I am divorced and remarried, should I divorce my current spouse and seek to reconcile with my past spouse?" I believe the Bible says no. Two wrongs don't make a right. Work on the marriage you are in. Do not separate from it.

Although we don't have time to fully address the issue of getting married after a divorce here, let me say this: our elders are set to explain the biblical grounds for remarriage and to walk people through a journey toward remarriage for those who seek it. We don't think remarriage is always biblical, but in many cases it is. The most important thing here is that the God who made you knows you and your needs and your relationships, and he can be trusted to bring you to the best possible place.

Please do not take any part of this sermon out of context or go off thinking, Now I can go divorce my spouse. That would be a direct insult to God. Instead, if your marriage is in trouble, get help. Every case is different, and again, there's no checklist of divorceable offenses. Instead, there are biblical guidelines in how to proceed. You must invite godly Christian counsel into your situation to gain perspective and help.

If you are divorced, God feels your pain. Whether you divorced on biblical grounds or not, God has not given up on you.

To see an outline of White's sermon, click here.

For your reflection:

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? _____________________________

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ___________________________________

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? _______________________

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? ______________________

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ___________________________________________

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? (For help on what may require credit, see Plagiarism, Schmagiarism and Stolen Goods: Tempted to Plagiarize.

Bill White is a church planter in urban Long Beach, California.

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Sermon Outline:


I. The ancient context

II. God made marriage, so it should be honored.

III. Hardness of heart is the issue in divorce.

IV. The biblical grounds for divorce