What God Teaches Us About Broken Marriage Vows
God warns adulterous and apostate Judah to learn a lesson from Israel's example. Both sister states had been unfaithful and broken their covenants with God, but while God had divorced Israel, he offered Judah a second (and third, and fourth) chance at mercy. His offer of restoration was beautifully enacted by Hosea in his marriage to unfaithful Gomer, and ultimately realized in the unbreakable marriage covenant between Christ and the church.
I had often noted God's patient forgiveness and covenant renewal in Hosea, but God's description of his own divorce with the northern kingdom of Israel shocked me. I had unquestioningly internalized the phrase "the sin of divorce." Regardless of how I interpreted the debate about Jesus' words on the topic, if God himself had experienced this unfaithfulness, I needed to rethink my understanding of sin and divorce.
Let me be clear: Marriage covenants are meant to be permanent, and sin is always to blame when a marriage ends in divorce. We commit sin when we break our vows, and marriage requires the regular practice of confession and forgiveness for the failures and oversights between spouses. There is a difference, though, between minor, unintentional mistakes and willful violations of covenant vows. In the former, we are to forgive and "bear with one another in love." In the latter, God allowed the victim a choice: to remain and forgive as he did with Judah, or to divorce where a covenant has been broken by "hardness of heart," as happened with Israel.
The sin in divorce lies in the breaking of marriage vows, not necessarily in the divorce itself. God's own divorce was entirely due to Israel's hardhearted sin. God was the blameless victim of divorce. When God says "I hate divorce" (Mal. 2:16), he says so not with the furious pointed finger of a judge, but with the broken-heartedness of One who has experienced the devastation of rejection and betrayal at the hands of his beloved.
Divorce is not God's will or desire for us. Even where divorce is allowed, it is not commanded, and then it is still a tragedy. Divorce leaves behind devastation and victims in its wake.
That God himself is a divorcee, despite his faultless covenant faithfulness, calls us to a more nuanced understanding of marriage and divorce. In our own marriages, God calls us to follow his example of covenant faithfulness, and has demonstrated how much grace and forgiveness is needed to maintain a relationship in the face of human sinfulness. God's example give us a framework to talk meaningfully about commitment and grace, and yet also to say that in situations of hard-hearted and deliberate covenant violation, divorce was allowed as God's way of officially declaring a broken covenant "broken."
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