This sermon is part of the sermon series "Project Hazmat: Handling Today's Tough Topics". See series.
The story behind the sermon (an interview with Peter Scazzero)
Preaching Today.com: Divorce is a landmine for preachers. There are so many ways a sermon on divorce can go wrong. Why was it important for you to preach on it?
Peter Scazzero: These "difficult topics" are people's everyday life. Well over half the people you preach to have been impacted by divorce. It's a deep pain. It's a death for people. They feel a lot of vague guilt and failure. And we don't address it clearly enough. I knew that I needed to address a larger series on singleness, sexuality, and marriage. But I couldn't ignore divorce.
I grieve at two extremes I hear in the church. One treats divorce as no big deal. That's a minority position, but it's out there. The other extreme takes the two "exemptions" mentioned in Scripture and makes it a new legalism. Both positions miss the heart of what Jesus said on marriage and divorce. It's theologically, in my humble opinion, wrong, and it's a misuse of Scripture. The practical result of both positions is bondage. It grieves me.
I've met women in domestic violence situations. Because that's not mentioned specifically in Scripture, they're told they must stay and take the beatings. Or a husband who's in an addictive relationship with severe emotional abuse. We miss what God is saying there. Not that I'm for divorce. I am not at all. But there's the temptation to become a legal expert at the expense of people. It's more complex than that.
It's obvious from your sermon, though, that you have a very high view of the marriage covenant.
Yes and so does Jesus. In Matthew 19, he goes back to the beginning to make the point that divorce is permitted because of hard hearts. We live in a fallen, broken world, and that's a reality. So that has to be taken into account in applying the heart of Scripture to this. That's what Jesus was doing.
So the high view of marriage is necessary before engaging the divorce question. Only two specific exemptions are given in Scripture to allow divorce: adultery and desertion. Our question is how to take that and apply it today. The perspective that these should be very narrowly and legalistically interpreted has sad fallout. I know a situation where the guy was abusing the children. Since that's not mentioned in Scripture, the wife's pastor told her she had to stay in the marriage. And what about severe physical abuse, severe emotional abuse?
The pastoral reality is very complicated here. And our preaching has to reflect that. We uphold Scripture. But that doesn't mean that we use Scripture as a club and swallow a camel while straining a gnat.
You didn't cover remarriage in your sermon. Was that intentional?
Yeah, it was. I actually had it in my notes, but couldn't address it at that time without cutting out something I felt was essential. I don't have a problem with remarriage. I'm not one of those people who say you can never remarry. But at the same time, I have a theology of celibacy that elevates a calling to celibacy or singleness, because we're all married to Christ.
If I were going to preach this message again, I'd probably put a stronger emphasis on the doctrine of marriage to Jesus. It's a foundational and relevant concept for anyone, regardless if they're married, single, or divorced.
How did people respond to your sermon?
They really appreciated it. They appreciated the fact that I didn't minimize marriage. Even those who had been divorced, those who had been through it, value the marriage institution. At the same time, they can't be treated as second-class citizens at church. They're not "damaged goods" in a gospel-oriented community. And that's a dicey dynamic.
I often wonder how Jesus did it. How did he have dinner with tax collectors and sinners, you know, and yet stand for something? He had values yet was able to communicate such love and grace to everybody he was with. That's our great challenge. The church should be the place that people hurting from divorce run to. But many of them are rightfully afraid of being judged there.
Many people who get divorced would not have gotten divorced if we as pastors and leaders had equipped them as singles and as young marrieds with better preparation on how to be married, because we usually don't. We frequently act as though healthy marriages just happen or they just don't. That's absurd. It's a key discipleship issue, but weak within our evangelical tradition.
This is personal for me. I didn't get discipled on how to get married. I went to seminary and all the best leadership conferences in the county. No one discipled my wife and me about how to be married. Our first eight years were a disaster. They were really painful. And by the grace of God we made it. But there are many people who got divorced because they didn't have any tools. They weren't equipped. They just got stuck, and the church wasn't able to help them get unstuck.
It's as absurd as blaming the gay community for broken marriages in the church. We have such poor theology in most of our churches for marriage and sexuality. Only nine percent of people have exceptional marriages. Most people are stuck. They're not joyfully experiencing the taste of the kingdom of God in marriage.
I preached this sermon in the context of a serious marriage equipping ministry going on in our church. We were already asking the big questions about marriage and how it relates to discipleship. That helped give a backdrop for the divorce issue.
Rather than wait for the marriage crisis to come, and then needing heroic intervention to fix it, we're working as a church to develop a thorough course with a theology of the body, and practical skills for living that out—"Emotionally Healthy Skills 2.0." It applies to both married and single people. We expect our married people to master these skills. So my sermon comes in the context of that kind of church culture.
Tell us more about the pastoral link between divorce and resurrection.
Well, I think that when you preach about divorce you have to end with resurrection. There are people in our churches that are divorced, and they were the ones mostly at fault. Just like I have people in my church today who were sex offenders and went to jail for years. There's forgiveness and resurrection, though. They're not lepers. My life is filled with failures that God has redeemed and resurrected.
Christians bear the seeds of resurrection. Awful things happen to us, and we do things that we deeply regret. Divorce impacts people like death. Divorce is such a horror. It's such a tearing. It's such a loss. In that context, the last thing people need is to feel shamed from the pulpit. They need the good news—that in that dark night of the soul, God will meet you. God will take great evil and bring great good. And so the whole Christian story is a story of resurrection. Death was there, but life came. That's especially meaningful to those impacted by divorce.
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."
"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."
Over the past few weeks we've been exploring the covenant of marriage. So far we've been looking into what the Bible has to say about marriage and we've been exploring four anchors for the biblical view of marriage. I call them anchors because everything in our society pushes us away from God's original intention for marriage.
First, it's a vocation, a calling from God. And singleness is a calling, too. The choice I make, whether or not to marry, informs all of my life—how I spend my time, my energy, my money, my hobbies. Discipleship in your marriage is of paramount importance, as is growing into a mature man or woman. Your marital status is a vocation, a calling from God.
Second, marriage is a covenant. It's not a contract; it's a vow. Each person makes a covenant vow to unconditionally love the other person, like God does for us. And even if the other person doesn't keep their side of the bargain or agreement, the covenant is permanent—it's glue—and it's exclusive between this particular male and female.
The third anchor is nakedness. God intends emotional openness in the protection of this relationship. People spend $100,000 on a wedding and months (sometimes years) preparing for that event. But most people spend very little time learning how to be married, preparing for it. They expect it to happen naturally and they don't learn about the emotional and physical openness that's coming. Adam and Eve were naked and without shame, and we see them completely safe in that relationship, God's original intention. There's no fear of rejection, they're not guarded, there's just union.
The fourth anchor is fruitfulness. Marriage isn't simply for the couple to enjoy each other and enjoy kids and live for themselves. Christian marriage was always meant to be a vehicle out of which love and forgiveness flow to other people. Your cup is meant to overflow to bless other people. It was always meant for the glory of God and to bear fruit. A marriage not bearing fruit is not getting God's original intent of marriage.
A culture of easy divorce
After the last couple of weeks discussing these four anchors, many of you were in shock and sobered by what we talked about. Last week some people said to me, "Pete, we're afraid. We don't want to get married if it's so serious. We had no idea all this was involved." And I said to them, "You get it!" Because that's exactly what the disciples said when they heard Jesus talk about marriage. Jesus took them back to the beginning, to the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2:18-25, and to God's original intention. When they heard Jesus talk about this—vocation, covenant, nakedness, fruitfulness—the disciples said to Jesus, "If this is the situation between a man and a woman, it's better not to marry." They realized the intensity of this thing. Their understanding of marriage was shallow and shaped by the culture, as is ours.
But people also said, "Pete, you've got to tell us about the wonder and the glory of what marriage can be, because it can sound like you put all the obstacles and difficulties up there." So before I talk about divorce, I would like to take a few minutes to talk about the beauty of marriage, how awesome it can be, and why it's worth the battle and the fight. So I'm going to invite my wife Jeri to come and join me. We want to take a few minutes to share with you that it's worth it and that God's intention for marriage is for something glorious and wonderful for us.
[Editor's Note: At this point in the sermon, Pete and Jeri Scazzero spent about five minutes sharing about the early expectations, difficulties, and growth areas of their marriage. Peter Scazzero concluded this section by saying, "So I want to encourage those of you who are married that marriage can provide a taste of God's love and goodness. If you keep pressing on and working on your marriage you will taste the fruit of the covenant. And for you singles, if God leads you into marriage, I want to share that it's worth all the pain and the scariness and the anguish, should God lead you to marry."]
In Matthew 19:3, the Pharisees came to Jesus to test him. They asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" Their motivation was to test Jesus, to trip him up, to get him to say something that people would misinterpret so they'd stop following him.
There were two schools of thought about divorce in Jesus' time: the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel. There's a verse referenced here, Deuteronomy 24:1, that Rabbis had been writing about and discussing for centuries prior to Jesus. To this day they discuss it. Moses says, "If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house …" and he gives further instruction. Rabbis wrote for centuries about what "something indecent about the woman" means. They wrote commentaries in the Talmud and other places about what "indecent" means, about what gives a man the right to write her a certificate of divorce.
The school of Shammai was strict. This small group maintained that divorce should never happen—except, some believed, in adultery. But there were very few followers of the school of Shammai; it was a narrow and strict interpretation of divorce. The large majority of people in Jesus' day, including the Pharisees, belonged to the school of Hillel. The school of Hillel said a man could divorce a woman for almost any reason at all. They took the word "indecent" to mean all kinds of things: "If she burned his dinner," "If she spoke to another man in the street," "If she did not give him a son"—as if that's her fault. "If her hair was unbound in public," because that meant she was promiscuous. "If she was a loud woman who could be heard in the next house." "If she speaks disrespectfully about her husband's parents." "If she found no favor in his eyes." Other Rabbis followed this last option by saying, "Find no favor means if he finds someone more beautiful or with a greater personality." So they began to make interpretations of the interpretation. It was very arbitrary.
In Jesus' day, a man could divorce his wife at a whim. We think divorce is rampant today. But divorce was also rampant in Jesus' day, among the Jewish religious community. We have "no fault" divorce; it's easy to get divorced today—just say, "Irreconcilable differences." You can't contest it; it's just done. But it was even easier in Christ's day, when a woman had no legal rights. Women took no part in public life. They could not vote. School was only for boys. And a woman could not even bless the food at the table. So women were treated as merchandise to be bought and sold and traded. So divorce was common in that environment. A divorced woman could easily find herself trapped in prostitution.
So the Pharisees were trying to back Jesus into a corner. They either wanted to make him side with the heartless, narrow, legalistic school of Shammai, or put him with the liberal, "anything goes" school of Hillel.
Jesus' pro-marriage stance
In verse 3 Jesus responds and takes them back to the beginning. He essentially says, "You're quoting Moses; you're missing the boat." And he quotes Genesis 2:24-25, and he moves past culture, tradition, opinion, and even goes past Moses, right to the Garden of Eden. He says, "You don't get it. This is a covenant, not a contract. You're not treating marriage like a vocation."
Now, let me try to make Jesus' point here. In verse 5 Jesus basically says, "Don't you know what it says here, at the beginning God made them male and female, a man shall leave his father and mother, be united to his wife? There's a covenant, and there are no longer two but one. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no man separate."
That's why the disciples got so scared. That's so intense, but that's the power behind marriage as a covenant. Contracts have certain characteristics. A contract, for example, is performance oriented. The point of a contract is to receive a service or product or commodity in return for something else. There's a performance expected, and when the performance is done the contract is over. A contract is marked by limited commitment. Terms and conditions are specified in the contract—whether it's for a refrigerator or a car or a house or an apartment. The contract obligates you only to what it says, no more and no less than what is written on that piece of paper. It's also reciprocal. A contract requires the consent of two people, of both parties. Someone said to me last week, "I've approached my whole married life as a contract. I am not willing to move an inch if I don't see some change in my wife." That's a contract, not a covenant. "I'll change when you change."
On the Cross Jesus said, "I make a new covenant in my blood. Not the blood of an animal; my blood." In Genesis 15, the God made the first covenant with Abraham. He had Abraham cut sacrificial animals in two, and God passed between the halves. God said, "I pledge to love you unconditionally, to fulfill my word to you. And I would rather die than break this covenant." The thought of a living God dying is difficult, isn't it? It's insane. But our God died, not because he broke the covenant, but because his all-too-human covenant partners broke the covenant. Blood had to be shed for breaking that covenant. So God died for us.
This concept of covenant love is the theme of the whole Bible. Regardless of your performance, regardless of your limited commitment, regardless of the fact that you quit God every few days, God's love endures forever. The height and depth and breadth and width of Christ's love surpasses all knowledge. That was Paul's prayer in Ephesians 3. God's love is so profound, it's so deep, that we'll spend eternity trying to grasp it. We will also spend eternity trying to grasp the idea of covenant love between two human beings.
Marriage is a covenant where two separate individuals—a man and a woman—become a "we." They have a new identity. That covenant takes priority over every human relationship on earth, including children and in-laws and cultures. If one person wants to quit that marriage—maybe they become passive or they get distracted or they're apathetic or they're unwilling to change—the couple should pursue all the help they need to keep and to experience the covenant as God intended. That's why you should spend all that time and energy and money, even if your spouse is not working on it, to try to get this thing to work. Because you've made a covenant to love them as God loves you without conditions.
Billy Graham was interviewed many years ago with his wife Ruth on the equivalent of the Oprah show. Phil Donahue was the Oprah of his day. And Phil Donahue was not friendly to Christians, so he was looking to trip up Billy Graham and his wife. At one point, the camera zoomed in on Ruth, and Donahue asked her, "Have you ever considered divorce, even once, to your husband Billy Graham?" And she said, "To tell you the truth, I've considered murder more often." That is a Christian response, because you can't live in that kind of intense relationship without wanting to murder the other person sometimes.
Biblical grounds for divorce
Jesus gives the Pharisees this word about covenant and they ask in verse 7, "Why then did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?" And Jesus replied, "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard" (emphasis added). Moses never commanded it; he permitted it because of hardness of heart. It's part of the Fall, part of the brokenness in humanity. There has to be allowance for divorce because of our brokenness and our sin and the hardness of our hearts. Jesus mentions one of the two New Testament exemptions or provisions for divorce: repeated adultery. The second is mentioned in 1 Corinthians 7: desertion, when the other spouse deserts and abandons the marriage. Some marriages—in fact, many marriages—survive desertion and adultery. Hosea was married to a prostitute. He remained loving and committed to that covenant marriage.
We know of many marriages in which there's been adultery but not only has the marriage survived, it's actually grown as a result. I'm not minimizing the horror and the pain of adultery in a covenant marriage, but folks have survived it and thrived afterward. It's tempting to become a lawyer or a legal expert with this issue of divorce at the expense of people. The church has been partially guilty of this. Divorce is very complex. There are so many scenarios. For example, a man is beating his wife repeatedly, and the church says to her, "You must stay in this marriage because the Bible says you can only divorce him for adultery and desertion, and he's not doing either." Or the husband is abusing their children. "That's not a reason for divorce." Or one spouse creates conditions to push the other partner into an affair, and they say, "See, it wasn't my fault; I'm clean before God."
Christians can play all kinds of games. But they're missing the point. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus basically tells the Pharisees: "Just because you don't murder someone doesn't mean you haven't committed murder. Murder is of the heart. You murder with your contempt, your anger, your condescension. And you think adultery is just adultery? When you lust in your heart you've committed adultery. You create a narrow view of God and Scripture to fit your own needs." It's the same with divorce.
We don't want to dilute the Word of God so that true discipleship becomes meaningless. But there are times when the Bible provides exceptions for hardness of heart. Moses allowed it. It is never God's best intention, but there are times of physical abuse or severe emotional abuse or destructive behavior or child abuse or addictions, when divorce is warranted. We try to do everything to restore that marriage relationship and attempt reconciliation. And most marriages can be saved through intervention, but not all. We live on the other side of the Fall. And Jesus understood that. He said, "Moses permitted it for your hardness of heart." It's not always possible to save a marriage.
It takes a village or a local family to surround a marriage, especially when it gets to a place of divorce. You need wise elders, wise mothers and fathers of the faith to help you discern. God never intended a couple to get married and live apart from a community of God's people. They provide a place to go for wise counsel and maturity, because the last thing God wants is a flippant attitude towards divorce.
The rate of divorce in the Christian community in the United States is the same as in the non-Christian community. That's a tragedy. And divorce is not a decision to be made in a vacuum. It's a process over a period of time with other mature believers, with every attempt made to reconcile it. Divorce is always a tragedy, it is always a death, and it is always a great grief. There is trauma involved. Those of you who have been through a divorce know that trauma. It's worse than death because it's a living death. It never goes away. In the midst of the world around us, we must fight for marriages. In our culture we must do everything possible to save a marriage when we can.
Craig Keener is a New Testament scholar who says, "The real point Jesus is making in Matthew 19 is 'Do not break your marriage. Nurture it, preserve it, live as one with your spouse as it was intended from the beginning.' But Jesus does not lay extra burdens on those already wounded against their will. Were Jesus to see his words so abused, he would charge the guilty with the same hardness of heart with which he charged the Pharisees. Just as Moses' words cannot be taken out of context, neither can Jesus' words be removed from the context of Jesus' intention. If we do not have mercy on others, he has promised that he will have no mercy on us."
Healing the wounds of divorce
Many of you have been through divorce or you are the product of divorce, or you have children who have been divorced, and you know the pain. We live in jars of clay, as 2 Corinthians 4 says, and some of you may have contributed to our divorce, or maybe it happened to you. But this is common in our culture. When people get divorced, there is an enormous loss of a dream. Many people grow bitter, closed, or angry, and they carry with them a helpless rage.
But there is good news: seeds of resurrection can be found even in divorce. God's plan and desire is that you would experience union and oneness, fellowship with God that your soul longs for. Picture a mountaintop that you'd climb to be with God and enjoy him, free from all the attachments and things in the world that pull you down. But to get there you do have to go through something called the dark night of the soul. John of the Cross originally coined that phrase, but it's found all over the place. The dark night of the soul can be a suffering, a depression, a setback, a disappointment, or something in your life where it feels like God's a million miles away, and you wonder if God is good at all. You pray but the prayers are bouncing right back at you. You can't see anything.
To grow and mature in God, everybody must pass through the dark night of the soul. Everybody. No Christian is exempt from it. It is a place of stripping and purging and cleansing. It is the place where your will is transformed to say, "I want God's will." It's the time when your affection for worldly things is put in its proper place, where it's broken. You're able to enjoy the world without being possessed by it. You hold things lightly because your heart has been cleansed, and now it wants God above all else. But to get there you have to be stripped and purged, and you have to enter the dark night of the soul. There is no dark night I can think of like divorce. It plunges a person into a dark valley—you can't see straight.
But that dark night of the soul is an opportunity if you wait on God to strengthen your soul, to change your appetites, to develop your appetite for God. You no longer love God for what you get from him. You no longer love God for a contract. You no longer worship your feelings about God. No, you actually worship God, whether you feel like it or not, because you've grown, you've matured, you've been stripped of that immaturity in the dark.
If you wait on God and follow him through it, he'll meet you in it and he'll rework you, and you'll absorb those griefs, and they'll become part of you. But you'll be transformed, and it will hold the seed for a new beginning. The whole heart of Christianity is that there must first be a death before there can be a resurrection. Jesus had to die and be buried before he could rise again. John 12:24 says, "Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it will bear no fruit. But if it dies, it bears many seeds and much fruit." In the same way, there are deaths that must take place in our lives for God to release new, fresh resurrections. Divorce is a death, and if we wait and persist and persevere, God will not just cleanse us and do a deep work of humility in our lives, but he'll resurrect you into a new beginning of something beautiful.
"There are truths that can only be discovered through suffering or from the critical vantage point of extreme situations." Isn't it true? We don't learn from our success. When we succeed we're clapping and happy, but we're not learning anything. It's through suffering that we realize truth. Only in a dark night can some truths about God become clear. They become the bedrock of your life. Seeds are planted now for something new, if you choose to wait on God when you can't see him. Trust his covenant love for you that endures forever. Stick with him and don't quit your journey. Theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said this: "In the shadow of death, we are not to look back to the past but to seek in utter darkness the dawn of God." When we're in the shadow of death, don't look back at that darkness, but seek the dawning of God. I want to encourage you if you have been through divorce, or if you are children of divorce, or if your kids have been through divorce. Wait on God for the dawn of something beautiful, for a resurrection, for God to unfold in your life in a way that you never had dreamed.