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John Whittaker was once preaching through the Sermon on the Mount. When 5:31–32 loomed, he decided to form a core group of people in the church who had gone through divorce to help him think through the text as he prepared to preach it. One Sunday morning, just before church started, he approached a church member who had been divorced. He greeted her and started to explain that he would soon be preaching from Matthew 5:31–32 on divorce. Before he could finish, she hung her head in shame and said, “I know. I’m going to hell, aren’t I?”

Christians frequently take such a view, living in shame that they were not able to make their marriage “work.” When Jesus addressed the matter of marriage and divorce, his intent was not to heap shame on anyone. His goal, instead, was to restore in his hearers’ mind God’s intent for marriage.

The religious leaders of Jesus’ believed that they had things all worked out. It was wrong, they stated, to commit adultery (vv. 27–30). Instead, if a man wanted out of his marriage, he needed to give his wife the proper divorce papers (vv. 31–32). He was then free to pursue whatever relationship he desired.

We read about these divorce papers in Deuteronomy 24:1–4. It becomes clear from that text that God gave the law in order to protect the woman who was unjustly divorced by her husband. God had always intended marriage to last until death, but since his people ignored that, and men were mistreating women in the process, he laid down a law in order to protect women. The religious leaders, however, turned this law in its head. They interpreted the law to argue that it was perfectly fine for a man to divorce his wife, so long as he gave her the necessary paperwork. Paperwork was all God was interested in. Jesus rejected that. To merely go through the motions of issuing divorce papers did not make the unfaithfulness of divorce acceptable. God intended for marriages to last.

God wants faithfulness for his people. He wants unity for them. Divorce goes against that. But the faithfulness that Jesus envisions requires work. He does not intend to minimise the pain and the difficult life experiences that lead to divorce. Far from it, he intends his people to hear that they should work hard to become the kind of people who can be in a lifetime relationship. Rather than looking for the easy way out, Christians should look hard at themselves and ask, “Am I the kind of person with whom another person can live forever?” If not, what steps must you take to become that kind of person? How must your faith, your purity, your generosity, and your gentleness be transformed so that someone can live with you for a lifetime?

What kind of character is required to make a marriage work for a lifetime? For the Christian, the answer is obvious: Christlike character. As I said yesterday, lust is not a sin just because the Bible says so. It is a sin because it distorts the character of God. Similarly, divorce (notwithstanding the biblical exceptions) is not wrong just because the Bible says so. Divorce is wrong because it distorts the character of God. He is a God who is faithful to his people despite their unfaithfulness to him. As Paul wrote, “If we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself” (2 Timothy 2:13). Unfaithfulness—whether in adultery or divorce—is a denial of God’s character. And the key to faithfulness is an adoption of God’s character—Christlike character.

Marriage counsel and advice plays a part in the Christian life. Marriage retreats can be helpful. But these things will only be helpful to the degree that you pursue and display Christlike character. Without Christlike character, all the marriage counselling in the world will prove futile.

As you reflect on these verses, therefore, don’t concern yourself with the exception clauses to divorce. Don’t be distracted by asking whether your divorce, or your parents’ divorce, or your friends’ divorce, was biblically justified. Those are questions for another time. Instead, ask yourself one simple question: Am I the kind of person who displays the character it takes to make marriage work for a lifetime? Whether you are married or unmarried, that kind of character is worth pursuing to the glory of God.