If you knew of something that shattered dreams, that generated overwhelming stress in people's lives, that would induce in them panic attacks and even cause heart palpitations; if you knew of one thing that prompted nausea and raised blood pressure and suppressed the immune system and fostered chronic fatigue; if you knew of one thing that reduced people's standard of living and shortened their life span and brought unspeakable trauma to their children, what would you do?
If you knew what that one thing was, and if you were good, and if you were God, you might say words like we read in Malachi 2:10-16:
"Have we not all one Father? Did not one God create us? Why do we profane the covenant of our fathers by breaking faith with one another? Judah has broken faith. A detestable thing has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem: Judah has desecrated the sanctuary the LORD loves, by marrying the daughter of a foreign God. As for the man who does this, whoever he may be, may the LORD cut him off from the tents of Jacob, even though he brings offerings to the LORD Almighty.
That one thing that causes the litany I listed is the breaking of faith. In particular, it's divorce. I could take the remainder of the time I have to speak with you and give you fact upon fact and stats and studies that bear it all out.
I'll tell you what it does to women. A divorce will sap 85 percent of their energy, just to keep an emotional even keel going through the day. It will cut their standard of living by two-thirds. It will make them angrier and more aggressive and violent with their children. And it will produce in them anxiety and worry and depression for as long as a decade.
I'll give you fact upon fact about what it does to men. It makes men two times more likely to have heart problems, three times more likely to commit suicide, seven times more likely to contract pneumonia, and ten times more likely to die at any given age.
We can talk about what divorce does to children. You know many of the short-term effects—anger, depression, guilt, stress, under-achievement in school. Did you know those things last for years and years? Longitudinal studies done on children tell us depression and underachievement will continue for a decade in most cases. In fact, one 25-year study that traced 131 children found that over half still had emotional and psychological problems that could be traced back to the divorce they experienced 25 years before.
Right now many of you are feeling uncomfortable. You didn't come to church to hear an anti-divorce message. You didn't come here to have me drudge up your past. So let me say a word about what I'm going after today. I'm not coming after anyone.
I'm not coming after you if you've experienced a divorce. Now it may be that through what God has to say to you through his Word today, you'll be brought to a place where you realize, I never did adequately repent of my part in that marital failure. If God does that work, that's between you and God. I'm not necessarily trying to stimulate that.
I'm not coming after you if you're in the midst of a divorce right now. In particular I'm not coming after those of you who have fought the good fight of the faith in this and you've wanted to save your marriage and you've done everything you could. I've prayed with many of you. I'm not coming after you. I'm not coming after anybody.
But I am going after something. I'm going after the honor of marital faithfulness, especially in the church. I'm going after that. I'm not coming after our past or present. I'm going after our future. It is vitally important that as a congregation, as a body of believers, we stay doggedly committed to our vows and uphold the institution of marriage. In some ways, as I hope to show you, the whole world depends on that. Not just your life or your happiness, but the whole world depends on marital faithfulness.
For those of you who are married or who may be married one day, I want this to build for you a biblical platform for marital faithfulness, because when you run into struggles some day, the experts tell us, most likely it's not going to be a struggle that deals with abuse or addiction or adultery. Those are horrible things to deal with, but do you know the top three complaints marriage therapists hear? Lack of communication, lack of affection, and nagging. Another study says 83 percent of marriages that fail, fail because of a basic lack of commitment. I want to shore up that commitment. That's what we're going after in this message.
One other word. You'll hear some hard things. If you've been divorced, I ask you to bear the pain of the next 20 or 25 minutes redemptively. What I mean is, in the difficult message you hear, in the pain you feel, I want you to see a redemptive purpose. If you'll stick it out, you can know that some people here will be prevented the mountain of grief you've suffered because you've been divorced. And if you'll hang in with me, I've got a special word of grace for you at the end.
Marital faithfulness represents a passion for God's covenant
Let's get on to the foundation, the platform we want to build for covenant faithfulness. The title of the message is point one: a passion for God's covenant. That's the bedrock of marriage for Christ followers.
It's striking that Malachi 2:10 doesn't begin with a list of stats and facts and figures about divorce like I've given you. God hates divorce and loves marital faithfulness, but he's got his own reasons for it, and they center on his covenant with his people. Verse 10: "Have we not all one Father? Did not one God create us? Why do we profane the covenant of our fathers by breaking faith with one another?" Three key words there: "Father" and "create" and "covenant" are all intertwined, and they form the bedrock of marriage.
God's the marrying type. He weds himself to people. But that act is not separated or distinct from his work as a father and as a creator. It's all bound up together.
Out of all the people in all the world, at one time in the past God chose one: Abraham. He said: You're going to belong to me, and through you I'm going to father a nation. I'm going to create a people: Israel. Out of all the nations of the world, that one nation is going to belong to me. It's going to be my holy nation. It's going to be my treasured possession. It's going to be the apple of my eye.
When God had his first official meeting with that nation in Exodus 19, he said: I want you to notice how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you out of Egypt to myself. Out of all nations, you'll be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
See what's going on there? As God is fathering a nation, creating a people, he's also confirming his marriage vows to his people: You're my treasured possession; you're the apple of my eye. All through the Bible the language of marriage, of marital covenant, is used to describe our relationship with the Lord. In the New Testament, time and time again Jesus is called the bridegroom. His church is called the bride. Heaven is a wedding feast.
So a passion for God's covenant undergirds marriage. Whatever we experience in marriage mirrors our relationship with a covenant-making and covenant-keeping God.
Now what we enjoy in that relationship is not just for our sakes or for our pleasure. The whole world depends on it. It's for the sake of the world that God has entered into this relationship. It's a big theme in Malachi. Established right off the bat in this book is that God's name needs to be honored and God needs to be brought our best. Why? It's not just so we can enjoy a good relationship. It's so that relationship can spill out and impact the whole world. Verse five: "You will … say, 'Great is the LORD—even beyond the borders of Israel!"
Whatever we experience in marriage is to be a mirror of what we experience spiritually with God—a covenant-making, covenant-keeping God. We're married to him, and we mirror that marriage in our marriages here. And in that mirror the world is supposed to see what God is like. It's for the sake of the nations that we need to maintain marital faithfulness. Whatever the world is going to know about God it's going to know by observing us. It's going to see in the mirror of our marriages what God is like, that he's a loving, covenant-keeping, faithful God. The whole world, in some ways, depends on our marital faithfulness.
I'll give you a tangible example of how it makes an impact. A book called A Promise Kept is the story of Robertson McQuilkin, a former missionary and seminary president who retired because his wife Muriel had Alzheimer's disease. He decided to dedicate himself full time for as long as the Lord deemed necessary to take care of his wife.
Care of Muriel was not only challenging when we reached our destination; it was equally challenging en route. I began to empathize with those young fathers who you sometimes see in an airport accosting perfect strangers who emerge from the women's restroom: "Did you see a little six-year-old girl in there?"
Airline attendants would watch in well-guarded bemusement as I crowded with Muriel into the tiny cubicle that houses the in-flight toilet. See, I knew what they didn't. If she ever got in there and got the door shut, unlikely as that might be, she never could have gotten it open again.
Once our flight was delayed in Atlanta and we had to wait a couple of hours. Now that's a challenge. Every few minutes the same questions and the same answers about what we're doing here and when are we going home. And every few minutes we'd take a fast-paced walk down the terminal in earnest search of what? Muriel had always been a speed walker. I had to jog to keep up with her.
An attractive woman executive type sat across from us, working diligently on her computer. Once when we returned from an excursion she said something without looking up from her papers. Since no one else was nearby I assumed she had spoken to me, or at least mumbled in protest of our constant activity. "Pardon?" I asked. "Oh," she said, "I was just asking myself, Will I ever find a man to love me like that?"
Mirrored in McQuilkin's relationship with his wife was the covenant-making, covenant-keeping love of God. You know what McQuilkin would turn and say to that woman? "Oh yes, you can find a man like that. You can find a man like that, because I've found a man like that. The only reason I love my wife the way you see me loving her is because the man Jesus first loved me. The only resources I have to draw upon to love my wife the way I do are the resources he gives me. Mirrored in my relationship here with my wife you can see the faithful love of God for me."
But if there's no mirror of faithfulness for the world to look into, what does it see? What does it do?
The world does what the world sees. If the world sees in us covenant faithfulness, it will be drawn to the same. That's what our marriage with God is intended to do. It's to be a great big, massive reservoir of love that spills out and waters the church and waters the whole world and gives them a taste of what they could have in Christ.
Marital faithfulness represents a passion for God's community
Built on that foundation is a sub-floor, a second element that ought to drive us to marital faithfulness. That is a passion for God's community. Malachi 2:11-12: "Judah has broken faith. A detestable thing has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem: Judah has desecrated the sanctuary the LORD loves, by marrying the daughter of a foreign God. As for the man who does this, whoever he may be, may the Lord cut him off."
Initially the connection here might be difficult. How does marrying the daughter of a foreign god—in other words, marrying an unbeliever-desecrate the sanctuary in Jerusalem? You have to understand the nuance of what Malachi is saying. He's not speaking about the sanctuary that's in the temple on the mountain in Jerusalem. He's talking about the sanctuary that is the people of God. By joining themselves to unbelievers, they are desecrating themselves as the sanctuary of God.
First Corinthians 3 says, "Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you?" It's not about the building; it's about the people. "If anyone destroys God's temple," Paul goes on to say, "God will destroy him; for God's temple is sacred, and you are that temple." First Corinthians 6 repeats the same thought in the context of sexual relationships. It says, "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body."
We live in an individualistic culture. We need to recover a sense of our communal existence. We together are God's sanctuary. God dwells within us not just individually, but he dwells in fullness within us, makes his full presence and power known in us collectively. Together we're God's sanctuary. And union, in mixed marriage, spiritually speaking, violates that community. It violates the integrity of it. We're a holy people set apart to God. We give ourselves at the deepest level only to those who have the same commitment. Marriage to unbelievers introduces unbelief, infidelity, and unfaithfulness into the body. It gives the illusion that somehow there can be a compromise between God and non-gods, that somehow they can sidle up to each other and be in-laws, that their families can be joined. They can't be, Malachi says, Paul says, the Bible itself from cover to cover says. We're to be set apart to God.
For those of you who aren't married, let me challenge you to make it a settled decision right now that while you are engaging relationally with the world around you, you will never engage romantically with that world. Your deepest loyalties and affections are reserved for God and for his people. You're violating God's community, Malachi says, with spiritually mixed marriages. A passion for God's community and the holiness and unity of it is a sub-floor built on the bedrock, the platform, for marriage.
Marital faithfulness represents a passion for God's children
What's the floor we stand on? It's a passion for God's children. It's a passion for loving each other, husbands and wives. Husbands who are God's sons showing faithfulness to wives who are God's daughters and to the offspring their union produces. A passion for that ought to keep us faithful.
Take a look at verse 13 and following: "Another thing you do: You flood the LORD's altar with tears. You weep and wail because he no longer pays attention to your offerings or accepts them with pleasure from your hands. You ask, 'Why?' It is because the LORD is acting as the witness between you and your wife."
You've broken faith, he says. You've broken faith with the wife of your covenant vow. How can you do that? She's a daughter of God. Don't you have a passion for God's children? How can you break faith with your husband? He's a son of God. Don't you have a passion for God's child that way?
Vows in marriage are important. In his book, The Mystery of Marriage, Mike Masons says it's not love that keeps a marriage together; it's the vows that keep a marriage together. He says we're naturally unfaithful people. We're people who break promises, who break vows. If we were naturally faithful and loyal, we wouldn't have to make lofty promises to each other. But we're not, so we do. We come together before God's people and stand in God's presence, and we anticipate the worst that life could throw at us—for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness, and in health—and we say no matter what comes, I will remain faithful to this spouse that I'm taking.
Those vows are serious, and they're all inclusive. For better or for worse includes everything-for fat or for thin, for hunky, for chunky, for patient, for impatient, for emotional, for rational, for involved, for aloof, for responsible, for irresponsible, for passive, for aggressive. Whatever it is, we're staying faithful. Mason says in his book that it's the vow that keeps the man, not vice versa. It's not the man who keeps the vow. The vow is bigger than me. I don't keep the vow, but the vow keeps me. And when I'm tempted to throw in the towel, the vow says, You said you were going to keep going. When I'm tempted to let my eye wander, the vow says, You committed yourself to one woman for a lifetime.
There might be such a thing as no-fault divorce in this world, but there's not in God's economy. He takes those vows seriously. And when a lack of earnestness about those vows prevents the vows from keeping me, God says: I'm acting as witness. I saw those vows. I heard them, and I'm acting as witness between you and the wife of your youth. Why are things difficult right now? Why in your worship do you sense that I am not pleased? It's because you're breaking faith. You don't have the same passion for my children that I do, and you need to recover it.
Note that it's not only husband and wife who are affected. It's the children. Verse 15: "Has not the LORD made them one? In flesh and spirit they are his." He made them one because he was seeking godly offspring. That's one of the prime purposes for a Christian marriage—to bear children. Not just to propagate the species, but to propagate the kingdom. God wants us to build his kingdom by giving birth to children and raising them up to know him. God wants us to create a loving environment, because in it a husband loves like Jesus and a wife responds like the church, as Ephesians 5 says. In that setting children are born, and they come to see mirrored in our home what God is like, and they give their lives to him.
Godly offspring typically don't come about in broken situations. It's hard to hear, but children of divorce typically experience more depression, more anger, more violence. They have more health problems, relational problems, and school problems. They experience more alcohol abuse, drug abuse, and tobacco use. They experience more delinquency and more crime, more teen sex, more teen pregnancy, more teen marriage, and more early divorce.
If you're a child of divorce, you're in the right place to buck the trend, because you're in a place of grace. You're in an extended family of love that can keep you from experiencing the depths of these repercussions. That's why we exist as the family of God, to give birth physically and spiritually to godly offspring who will walk faithfully with their Lord.
But what devastating effects when we break faith. "I hate divorce," God says. Two times he says, "Guard yourself in your spirit and do not break faith."
Make sure that in your spirit God is alive and the gospel is alive, because at the moment any believer is inclined to divorce, he or she is not putting the gospel first.
One person inclined toward divorce says, "I'm all out of love." Is God out of love? We love because he first loved us. His love is an infinite reservoir. If you tap into it, you're not out of love. You have to give the gospel sway in your thinking on this. There's love to give if you know where the Source of it is.
You say, "This relationship is stifling me. I'm losing myself. I have to go and find myself." The gospel says you find yourself by losing yourself to your deepest, most sacrificial commitments. Jesus said: You want to find your life? You lose it in me.
"We have irreconcilable differences." The gospel says there are no irreconcilable differences. God was, in Christ, reconciling the world to himself while the world was full of sin and didn't give him a second thought. And now look at us. We're all redeemed believers gathered together in his name. We've been reconciled to him. There is no such thing as an irreconcilable difference.
"But we can't change. Too much water under the bridge." The gospel is all about change: "If anyone is in Christ, he's a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" In Revelation 21:5 Jesus says, "I am making everything new!" And that can be your marriage.
God offers grace for the divorced
Now that word of grace I promised for those who have experienced divorce. There was a dark period in Israel's history before Malachi's time. The nation had divided, and the northern kingdom was sent off into exile. God spoke to that kingdom through the prophet Jeremiah:
Have you seen what faithless Israel has done? She has gone up on every high hill and under every spreading tree and has committed adultery there. I thought that after she had done all this she would return to me but she did not, and her unfaithful sister Judah saw it. I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries.
That is a word of grace for you. Did you hear what the text said? "I gave her a certificate of divorce." God himself has been divorced. He knows what you feel. He knows the anger, the depression, the pain. He knows what you've gone through, especially those of you who didn't want a divorce but you got it anyway. You've got a God who can relate intimately to that.
Let me give you another word of grace. God sent that kingdom away, but then later he went to Jeremiah in verse 12 of chapter 3:
"Return, faithless Israel," declares the LORD. "I will frown on you no longer, for I am merciful. … Return, faithless people," declares the LORD, "for I am your husband."
Even if you've experienced divorce, God will not divorce you. He is your husband if you belong to him. Jesus said, "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you."
The gospel promises that wedding feast in heaven one day, and he who began a good work in us, who began to prepare a bride for himself for that marriage in heaven some day, will carry it on to completion, Philippians 1:6 says. You're not a second-class citizen. You've got a God who relates and understands and who is covenantly faithful to you. So from this day forward we can be faithful to one another.
For Your Reflection
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Exegesis and exposition:
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Greg Lafferty is senior pastor of Willowdale Chapel in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.