It’s Complicated: Mark on Marriage, Divorce, and All the Messiness of Life and Love
There is a movie, “Its Complicated,” with Alec Balwin, Meryl Streep, and Steve Martin. Jack (Balwin) and Jane (Streep) are divorced because Jack had an affair with a much younger woman, whom he is now married to, but is increasingly unhappy with because it was more lust then love.
Their kids have grown up and their relationship is civil, so at a graduation event, the two of them hang out. Wine was involved and the two of them get romantic.
At the same time, Jane is interested with Steve Martin’s character, Adam, who is a gentle charming divorcee, who also was cheated on, making him a perfect match for Jane. That gets put on hold as Jack and Jane proceed to see each other in secret so their kids don’t know.
They in essence have an affair as former husband and wife, which as the title of the movie suggests, is complicated. It is obvious that they are in a different stage of life and they do still love each other. However, Jack now is married. The kids are now stable from a rocky divorce. Jane has this other love interest. Jack wants to leave his current wife to get back with his ex-wife; Jane is hesitant.
The upshot of the movie is that their kids do find out. It is hard on them, so they don’t get back together. Oddly the best thing for everyone is to have them stay divorced. The end of the movie suggests Jane resumes seeing Adam.
The Bible is Complicated because Life is Complicated
The movie, “It’s Complicated,” humorously shows the complexity of relationships and situations in life. Sometimes there does not seem to be a right answer.
This could pretty much be the summary of what Christians are to think about marriage and divorce in the context of all the messiness of life: It is complicated.
When we turn to the Bible, sadly, we so often refuse to read the Bible though the fact that life is messy and complicated. We come to the Bible often trying to escape the messiness of the world to embrace something certain, simple, concrete, and black-and-white. Now, there is certainly a lot in the Bible that is clear and simple. In many cases we shouldn’t over think it and just do it.
However, the Bible is a book that was written by people in messy situations for people in messy situations. It is not a book that was written outside the complexity of life for people that want to escape the confusion of that complexity. The Bible is complex in many parts because life is complex. It can be complicated because life is complicated.
I think it is that way because we don’t learn to trust God when life is simple, easy, and clear cut. I know I have to trust the grace of God when life is stressful, confusing, when I am facing moral dilemmas, and when I just don’t know what to think. Life is complicated, so the Bible reflects that. It meets us there, and that is all the more reason to trust God, using discernment, good biblical reflection, and humble obedience.
Marriage Got Complicated for Me
We learn marriage from the examples of marriage we were raised with. My understanding of marriage got complicated.
As I have often said, my parents, who are now deceased, went through a messy divorce. They separated and my mother told me dad that they were getting back together, when she actually pursued a relationship with someone else. My dad did not come around that much because he felt hurt and depressed. Later in life I was able to get to know him better.
My mother remarried a man that was, for lack of a better word, verbally abusive. When my mother asked me, when I was in grade 9, whether I approved of him, I voiced the concern that it seemed like the guy did not have a conscience. My mom did not take my concern seriously, but turns out that was more or less true. When my mother was diagnosed with cancer when I was in high school, they were already arguing severely about money. They shared a business that was a constant source of stress. My step-father actually started taking money out of their personal funds and business so that my mother could not use them for medical purposes. In other words, he was banking on her dying and was making sure he would have money after she was gone.
That kind of killed their relationship. I remember coming back from college to hearing them fight. I walked into the argument, as my mother was trying to convince my step-father to agree to a divorce. I’ll never forget his words: “The Bible does not allow for divorce. I have not cheated on you. You have no right to divorce me. You’re the one breaking my heart, Susan!”
It was the words of a true narcissist, and the Bible was a way for him to do whatever he wanted. I remember being at the time very zealous and idealistic. I believed divorce might never happen as long as you had enough faith. However, seeing all the pain my mother had gone through, I took it upon myself to sit with my step-dad and try to convince him to leave. I felt like I was going back on what I believed in. He did, however, and the separation continued many more years after that. Police were involved several times. It continued till my mother finally passed away from her cancer in 2009.
Children of divorce, like myself, have deep fears about marriage, which translates into deep fears about relationships in general. It is a fear about relationships working long term. It is a fundamental skepticism about the goodness of relationships, people, and even the goodness of oneself. This is something I had to work through in my own marriage.
Are you a married person? Are you a divorced person? Are you a child of a divorced family? Are your parents together? Or perhaps you don’t know your parents that much at all. This all affects us as disciples of Jesus.
Perhaps you are single and see your friends going through tough stuff. A lot of what I am saying will help anyone with any relationship, not just marriage.
With the complicated nature of life, we come to the Bible and seek to understand its truths.
What Does Mark have to Say?
Mark 10 reads as follows,
Jesus then left that place and went into the region of Judea and across the Jordan. Again crowds of people came to him, and as was his custom, he taught them.2 Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”
Notice where they are: across the Jordan, an area ruled by Herod. Pharisees are trying to trap Jesus in bad-mouthing Herod. Herod stole his brother’s wife, and so, this “test” is a way of getting Jesus to potentially criticize the king, something that John the Baptist did and it costed him his life.
The question is, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” There were three schools of Rabbinical thought at the time, all concerned with how a man could get rid of his wife: the school of Shammai: divorce on the basis of unchastity; the school of Hillel: divorce based on anything; and Rabbi Akiba: divorce was possible if the man falls out of love with the woman. At the time, it was possible for a woman to divorce her husband in Jewish culture, although it was very uncommon. Women’s rights is not what the Pharisees are interested in. They want to know if they can divorce women at whim.
3 “What did Moses command you?” he replied .4 They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.” 5 “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,”
Notice Jesus is pointing out the spirit of the law. The spirit of this law is not that divorce is a good thing, but because of human hearts can be hard. I should point out at this juncture that Christians, just because we live in the new covenant, does not mean our hearts can’t be hard too.
Originally, women were regarded as property and could be divorced on a whim. The Old Testament is a cultural advance, a “redemptive-movement” (a la William Webb), creating a legal process, which helped protect women. So, the spirit of the law was to help others and protect relationships, not to make them easier to get out of.
Jesus replied. 6 “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ 7 ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, 8 and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Jesus does not talk about marriage according to the clauses on how to get out; he refocuses us to marriage’s purpose and beauty when we stay in.
You can’t learn to fly an airplane by following the instructions on how to make a crash landing, writes commentator James Edwards.
Marriage was intended for intimacy, companionship, mutuality, vulnerability – all the joy that lifelong love can bring. If the Pharisees are looking to get out of their marriages, they really don’t get that.
10 When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. 11 He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. 12 And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”
The parallel passage of this in Matthew 19:9 records Jesus saying,
“ I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
What do you notice there? Matthew includes the clause of sexual immorality as a possible grounds of divorce. Is this the only reason a marriage can fail and legitimately end in divorce? I know a lot of evangelicals offering their own little interpretation: “They did not cheat on me, but I felt almost cheated on by what they did. It was emotional adultery.” I hear that one often, and it shows that the truth and application of this passage is less than straight forward.
More interestingly, Mark does not include this clause. Mark in his Gospel never gives any reason for divorce. Mark was circulated separately from the other three Gospels for decades. So, for some early Christians, their gospel text, their instruction manual for living the Christian life, seemed to offer no possibility of divorce of any kind. Does that mean Mark’s understanding of what Jesus teaches means he thinks Jesus did not allow for any form of divorce?
We should also note that there is no grounds in the concrete teachings of the New Testament for remarriage. All we have is the warning that if a divorce person remarries they are “committing adultery.” What is going on there? Does that means God condemns people who get a divorce and years later find love again?
Everyone say, “It’s complicated.” This is where we need to put on our thinking caps as thoughtful Christians if we are going to handle the Word of God with the care it deserves.
How (Not) to Take the Bible Literally
At the University the other day, I gave a guest lecture and I opened it up for Q and A. I don’t remember the original question, but one student informed me that “See this is why I don’t take the Bible literally.”
I asked her, “What does ‘literal’ mean?” She couldn’t answer that. Most mean literal in the sense of reduced and flat and over-simplified, as if the meaning is so plain you can read it thoughtlessly. In that case that’s correct. Generally speaking, we should not take the Bible thoughtlessly. There are lots of Scriptures that are straightforward (which look great on wall calendars and mugs), mind you, but there are others, like this, that are not.
Still others take literal to mean that they don’t take the Bible seriously. The Bible is only good for vague platitudes and principles everyone knows already. That’s not good.
But literal means “by the letter.” It just means reading the Bible by what’s written on the page. I hope everyone reads a book by reading what is written on the page!
The question then becomes how do the words on the pages recommend themselves to be read? How do we read the Bible biblically? How do we read the Bible the way the passage wants us to read it?
When Jesus talks about a good Samaritan, is he talking about a real guy he knows or a fictional one? To read the parable of the Good Samaritan literally means reading as a parable not report! That seems obvious. It is literally a parable.
When Jesus is described in Revelation as having a sword for a tongue. Does Jesus really have a sword sticking out of his head or does it seem obvious that the words of Revelation should be read as symbols. Jesus’ words are powerful, but they are not made out of metal. The words suggest that. That vision in Revelation is literally symbolic.
When 1 Cor. 11 recommends that all women where head-coverings, I would hope everyone pays close enough attention to the fact that head coverings at the end of the passage are “only a costume” (some translations mis-translate the Greek). To read that text literally is to be aware that it is a contextual command that might not apply today.
Here is the funny one: 2 Corinthians 3:6 says, “He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant–not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” The letter of the text actually here insists that we don’t read merely by the letter, but in the Spirit. To read the Bible literally, reading how the words want us to read and apply them, the words tell us to read in their spirit. The Bible is to be read literally in the spirit.
Everyone say the word, “hyperbole.” A hyperbole is a striking, over the top statement. Used in an argument it is meant to give you a kick in the butt.
Jesus loves hyperboles. If you read the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5), Jesus says that if you say to your brother, “You idiot,” you could go to hell. Go to hell?! He says if you look at a woman lustfully you should cut out your eyes. How many people here are wearing eye patches? None? …hmmmm. These are hyperboles that are meant to shock the listener into reconciling with others and doing everything possible to root out causes of lust. If you were to read them as concrete teachings (bad literalism?), you would actually be doing yourself and others a disservice, particularly if you cut out your eyes! These texts are literally to be understood as hyperbolic. That is how the text intends them.
Interestingly enough, in the same strand of hyperbolic expressions in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus also repeats that if anyone gets a divorce then gets remarried, they are commit adultery. So, how do I know this is a hyperbole in Mark? It is because it fits with Jesus’ pattern of using hyperboles elsewhere. It warns the readers that an action that they consider acceptable needs to be taken more seriously. The Pharisees wanted to divorce their wives on a whim. Jesus wants to drive home point that if you have that attitude towards another human being, namely your wife, your heart has some serious sin in it.
The Complexity of Life and Love
Does this mean that the only reason Christians can get divorced is because of adultery? Does this mean if there is infidelity the one person is free to leave the other, making a clean break? The Bible is not meant to offer simple, trite, formulaic ways of being a Christian that simply will not stand up to the complexities of life. Reading the Bible refusing to see these nuances that the text intends is bad literalism; it actually refuses to read the Bible the way it ought to be read. It is oddly not too literal. It’s not literal enough.
If we don’t read the Bible though the complexity it was written for, we can end up falling to grasp the complexities of life. Let me give you some examples:
- I know lots of good people that don’t believe in divorce that are now divorced.
There is lots of reasons why this happens. Christians, even the best of Christians, for all sorts of reasons, have broken relationships: friendships, marriages, working relationships. It does happen.
We often assume that the day we become a Christian to make a decision in faith, that from then on we are not going to mess up, but as Kierkegaard would say, “We are all in the process of becoming Christians.” We might have accepted Jesus, but that does not mean that we Christians can go through times where our hearts are hard or we are simply immature or the circumstances of life get the better of us.
Churches often demean those who have had a divorce. When we do that we stop being the family of God. Jesus came to save the sick. The church is meant to be a hospital to those that need healing. While we lift up great examples of faith in marriages – and we have marriages in our congregation that have lasted so many years, they are a wonderful testimony – we also have to lift up examples of men and women who when they were less mature or went through difficult times did get a divorce, but have worked on making sure they are on good terms with their ex-spouse and work to create stability with their kids.
Many of us have learned that being divorced from someone can actually be harder than being married to them. You often think divorce allows you to get away from the person. In reality, it’s far from.
In the past, the church has refused to have divorced people as leaders, however, there are people who in the past got a divorce, but have worked through it and have tried their best to live peacefully with their ex-spouses, and frankly, because of that experience, are more gentle, gracious, and wise people. In short, they are exactly the kinds of people we should have leading the church.
This is exactly that pattern of Jesus. Jesus chooses the supposedly unqualified and discounted to lead his church, because they understand what grace is. Levi, the extortion-thug of a tax collector, was called to be an apostle. Peter, the man who betrayed Jesus three times, Jesus installed as the head of the church. Paul, a man who rounded up Christians, imprisoning them and stoning them, Jesus gives him a vision on the road to Damascus, and made him the greatest missionary of the early church.
Perhaps you have gone through a divorce or our going through one. Know that we have a community that is ready to listen and walk with you.
- I know marriages that have dissolved and frankly rightly ended where there was no adultery.
I know that marriages that have ended because of one spouse’s addictions or others that were put under such strife from mental illness. Then again I know marriages that have worked through those.
There are ways of hurting a person, betraying their trust, causing hurt, causing a relationship to become completely dysfunctional, that has nothing to do with being sexually unfaithful. Remember the story of my mother and step-father. Again, if you read the exception in the cause of adultery as the only legal clause, you are making the Bible say something very trite, even destructive.
So, there are many cases where there was no adultery, but the marriage needed to end. I know marriages where, one instance, a family where the wife was being severely mistreated, but it seems like their pastor – I don’t know if he knew about the mistreatment or not – merely told the woman, you have to stay with him or else you are sinning. If you leave, you’re the adulterer and adulterers go to hell. He didn’t technically cheat, so you can’t divorce him. The man function does not have any love for the woman, but that did not matter. The situation meant the women was now forced to stay with a person that demeaned her in terrible ways. I would call it verbal or emotional abuse, and the church, a religious officiant that represented the church, actually added to her sense of hopelessness and shame.
- I know some people who don’t have a lot of money who live in common law, but live faithfully.
In Canada, we have common law marriages where if a couple lives together long enough they are protected as if they are legally married. I think this is appropriate legislature since, again, the spirit of the law should be to protect relationships and people.
I know a lot of non-Christians who would consider their common-law marriage to be full marriage, and they have lived those relationships faithfully. Should Christians demean those individuals? I hope not. I hope we encourage them in those relationships, encourage them to act in all ways possible to protect their relationships as lifelong and permanent, and rejoice that while they might not have had a full ceremony, they have committed to loving each other.
- I know couples that are together through very unideal circumstances.
A person I know told me that he cheated on his wife years ago. He said he was sorry to his wife, but his wife kicked him out. Dejected he got together with his lover. They got married and now have kids. They have been married for many years now. As he told me about all this, he carried this terrible sense of shame and confusion. What should he have done? Not got remarried? Too late for that. Divorce the woman now? Try again to get back with his first wife, who hates his guts and refuses to forgive him? Or just continue on and try to make the most of where he is?
Again, if you read the Bible through these comfortable categories, you end up placing people in unsolvable situations. The most I could offer was saying, “All I can say is that I know God knows you and what you feel even more clearly that you know yourself.”
- I know marriages that have suffered infidelity but they are still together.
Finally, I know couples where one person cheated, asked forgiveness, the other forgave in the full sense of the word, and they continued on. I know several examples where marriages that had infidelity in them are now marriages that are stronger than they ever were before the one spouse did their terrible act.
Now, no one should be forced to stay in a relationship with abuse or infidelity, especially if the other is blatantly unrepentant and refusing to live up to their responsibilities of the relationship.
But, if we read the divorce exception clause as a way to get out of marriage, if we look for ways of getting out of relationships, we read the Bible, Jesus’ own teachings, the same way the Pharisees read their divorce laws. We can read Jesus pharisaically, oddly enough. We have to read for the spirit of the law, in all the complexity our relationships can take us. It’s complicated, but that is where God calls us.
The Beauty of Staying In
Jesus does not give us ways of getting out of the relationship commitments we are in. He points us to their purpose. He gives us strong hyperboles to stay on track with our relationships. Keep your eyes on the prize!
Just because we don’t believe in divorce does not mean divorce won’t happen. That is the complexity of life. That is why we walk in truth and grace. The most we can say is to follow Jesus’ advice. Look at what marriage is supposed to be about. Inseparable oneness. “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” In my marriage, I have learned that no one means me. For yours it means you.
You can’t learn to fly an airplane by following the instructions on how to make a crash landing, writes James Edwards.
It is not our convictions about divorce that keep us married. It is our convictions about communication, forgiveness, happiness, humility, and reconciliation applied to marriage that keep us married. It is our convictions on how to keep a relationship healthy that are the most important.
If you want a lasting relationship, learn to communicate. Learn to accept criticism constructively. Learn to tell the other person how much you love them without wanting something or how much you are frustrated with them without attacking them. Learn to give criticism lovingly.
Marriages fail when they become zero-sum games of what you can get out of the other. Instead, ask your self, “What else can I be giving?”
One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was to say, “When you did this, it made me feel like this…” rather than lead into accusing the person. So much hurt happens unintentionally because the other person was unaware of how their actions made the other feel. Giving people a chance to hear how an action made them feel without an accusation of intentional wrongdoing can allow a couple to correct the action without conflict.
If you want a lasting relationship, learn to forgive. Often your spouse will upset you and do something wrong. So will you. You are both imperfect people. You did not marry a soulmate that is perfect. The expectation that the person you married has to be perfect can really put a bad expectation into life. The reality is that you do not have a soulmate, but in every day learning to reconcile and forgive, giving things for each other, putting the other person’s happiness ahead of your own and them for you, in this, you can make that person your sole-mate.
If you want a lasting relationship, learn to be a servant. Learn to find happiness in making the other person happy. One of the best pieces of advice on marriage is that if two people love each other and always put the other’s happiness ahead of their own, the two will always be happier and better cared for together than they ever could be alone. But that takes humility. That takes the constant choice of sucking up your pride and being a servant.
That takes us to right now.
May you know that you are in the presence a God that has called us to be an understanding family of grace in all the complicity of life.
May you know the grace of Jesus Christ in all the broken and complex relationships and moments of your life. May you walk in grace through them.
May the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ be on you to empower you to love as he loves us. May the love you have for others and the love they have for you be a reflection of the beauty of God.