Is Divorce a Sin?

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By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

Churches proclaim divorce to be a sin with certain exceptions. These exceptions depend on which church you attend. Some believe divorce is a sin unless there is sexual infidelity, but what about abuse or neglect of a spouse?

Most would say that sexual infidelity may warrant a divorce, but an abused spouse may be recommended a separation until the abuser gets help, and a neglected spouse may be recommended to try and save the marriage. There are a number of ways to save a marriage. But when it comes to divorce, there are a number of factors to consider; one may not find God’s will simply based on one rule to stay married except for sexual infidelity. Even then, sexual infidelity does not automatically demand a divorce.

Further complications include how the divorced are treated by the church. If a spouse who was abused or neglected by his or her spouse, had a relationship with a kind friend that turned sexual, one of the spouses would be free to divorce and marry again and even serve as a church leader, and the other may be judged and shunned by people in the church. Which do you think is which? While both sides contributed to the breaking of the covenant of marriage, the side that sexually erred is often targeted for blame.

Divorce is a legal issue, and some treat the Bible as a legal document to justify or condemn divorce. The Bible moves from rules and regulations in the Old Testament toward behavior based on a growing personal relationship with God through Jesus. Laws are an external demand. God wants more than external change. He wants internal change through a personal interactive relationship. Both the Old and New Testament are clear about God’s intention for marriage. While the Old Testament permitted divorce, the New Testament made clear what the Old Testament also made clear: God meant marriage to last. The Bible underscores the need to save marriages. There is no doubt divorce has major negative consequences on a person and the family. There are a number of options to take before divorce is unavoidable. However, if one does not view the Bible as a legal document addressing every circumstance, the justification for divorce is not captured by rules alone. It is based on one’s relationship with God and other Biblical values that come into play.

So one’s view of divorce may rest on one’s view of the Bible. Is the Bible like a legal document that covers all situations? Or does the Bible present principles that need to be applied to individual situations? Either view can support the high value of saving the marriage and that divorce is only acceptable if a party crosses this line: sexual infidelity. But, does that position address every situation? Is the New Testament more restrictive than the Old in that divorce was permitted but now is not?

There is a line between the position that Biblical rules have no exceptions except what is stated, and the opposite position that rationalizes one’s decisions to the point that they are not based on Biblical principles nor a personal relationship with God. Each one must look to their own conscience and ask if they are seeking God in their decisions, and especially in this decision to divorce. This may be difficult to do without consultation. Most likely at the point of divorce there have been sins committed on both sides; each side has to take responsibility for their own by examining the impact of his or her behavior on the other, expressing sincere remorse, making a commitment to the marriage and making sustainable changes. However, one’s position on the issue of divorce that comes from a personal relationship with God and Biblical values like justice, mercy and grace is ultimately preferable than one that merely follows rules.

God is a God of redemption. God seeks to restore that which was lost, and make it better. “Plan A” is preferred, but God can create a “Plan B,” even after divorce. David, a man after God’s own heart, required a “Plan B” after he committed adultery with a woman who later became his wife. Their son was chosen to be heir to a throne over the son of his first wife. This lineage led to Jesus Himself. This Old Testament story is one of many underscoring the message of a God who takes the bad and turns it around for good for those who return to God after their sin. Consequences remain, but redemption has the last word. Is the New Testament meant to imprison people in unholy relationships, only to punish them indefinitely after a divorce? Does the Old Testament convey more grace under the Law than the New Testament where people are covered by God’s mercy and grace? The Pharisees in the New Testament followed the law but missed important values in applying the law. Instead, the more one builds a relationship with God based on personal knowledge of Him (as revealed through reliable sources) the more clarity on this personal decision. The decision has to be personal because very few want a marriage based merely on duty, and such a relationship is bound not to last. In contrast, while God does not control people, He also may be the one resource that enables one to save the marriage.

For an exploration of what the Bible says about divorce, remarriage and leadership in the church see What Does the Bible Say about Divorce?

 

Grace Over Judgment

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

When you have been wronged it can be hard to consider mercy, but when you are the one who has done wrong, mercy can be what saves you. Certainly looking at truth about yourself can be unacceptable without grace. The Bible is essentially stories of redemption, and how a living and interactive God intervenes in the lives of regular people. Due to the graphic nature of man’s offenses in the Bible, one is left with the impression that God can redeem anything.

Without grace, we cannot grow. “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord. ‘They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. In those days when you pray, I will listen. If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me” (Jeremiah 29:11-13). God, time and again, takes unfortunate circumstances and makes them lead to something better for those that seek Him. The concept of grace, knowing that one is fully accepted by God, disrupts the shame cycle that perpetuates sin.

While grace is essential for growth, the Bible uses cutting down a tree as a metaphor for judgment. Some treat the Bible as a legal document used to condemn. The religious order of the Pharisees neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. “They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. (Matthew 23:4). Religious people can turn people away from God. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are” (Matthew 23:13-14). These are strong words from Jesus.

So grace is preferred over judgment because grace is the way to grow while judgment is used to destroy. Judgment is growth-producing when accompanied by grace, and thus is a pruning process. So one’s Biblical interpretations are to be interpreted with a goal of redemption and hope, and not oppression.

How Relationship Leads to Change

Emotions Versus Actions

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

Many present a split between emotions and actions. In this way we tell ourselves that we are not able to change our feelings but that is acceptable as long as we do not act on them. Examples would be fear, anger, or desire. So acting right becomes more important. Similarly, if one does not feel enough joy, hope, or love, one may put more emphasis on actions, focusing instead on doing what is right instead of what they are feeling.

Using love as an example, is it possible, to act right but not actually love? In this verse the writer supposes that actions could be good, but inadequate. “If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:3). Love appears to be more than just actions.

Some focus on doing what is right and leave the emotion out of it, though the Bible indicates that right emotions are important along with doing right. “For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him” (Philippians 2:13). The risk is that too much emphasis on acting without feeling may leave one feeling empty inside, or may even lead to more negative emotions like guilt. Or, acting and finding one’s worth in one’s actions can lead to hypocrisy and self-righteousness. What is God’s view of the self-righteous? “They say to each other, ‘Don’t come too close or you will defile me! I am holier than you!’ These people are a stench in my nostrils, an acrid smell that never goes away” (Isaiah 65:5). Instead, God may be looking for a change of heart. For example Jesus told the religious Pharisees “First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean” (Matthew 23:26).

Are Emotions Commanded?

Are Emotions Commanded?

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

There are many commands to have or not have particular emotions in the Bible in a given context. Many Christians focus on what they do or not do, and leave the emotional side as out of their control. However, emotions reflect beliefs and values, and thus are a valid window into the soul. They are not to be left behind in view of “doing the right thing.” Many come to counseling because they feel their emotions are out of control.

One difficult command in the Bible is to love your enemies (Matthew 5:43-48; Luke 6:27-28, 32-36). Those that have enemies know this difficulty; in fact following Biblical precepts are difficult. It is understandable that Christians then focus on what they do or don’t do in spite of what they feel.

The story of the Good Samaritan is an example of loving your enemy. Reading the story suggests that the Samaritan acted out of compassion, and not a command to “do good.” Love is more than an action. For instance, God “pours” love into hearts (Romans 5:5). In the Bible, Paul’s love was deeply felt (2 Corinthians 2:4). Matthew A. Elliott supports the importance of emotion in Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament. On page 157 he writes “If love was action how could it be judged as insincere?” The Bible distinguishes between love and actions (1 Corinthians 13:3, Revelations 2:2-4).

But what if one does not feel such compassion? Are there ways to control emotions? The Bible points to the effect of knowledge, beliefs and values on emotions (Philippians 1:9). Finding truth and experiencing truth changes emotions. However it is a process and thus grace is needed.

The Heart in the Bible

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

God works through the heart (Jeremiah 31:33). It is out of the heart that we connect with God (Romans 10:10). We are told not to lose heart (Galatians 6:9). What does the heart represent in the Bible?

The definition of the heart in the Bible includes the conjunction of emotion, knowledge and the will. Each of these parts has an effect on the other parts; each part cannot be separated from the other parts.

In the story of the prodigal son, the father’s love for his wayward son was one of emotion, and not just from reasoning or just his commitment to his son.  The father did not respond to his son just because it was the right thing to do, or because he was forcing his will to comply.  “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him (Luke 15:20).”  It was the combination of all three parts – emotion, knowledge, and the will, that serves as a model for the love of God for us, and as a model for the love we are to have for others.

In contrast, in the description of a religious sect, Jesus describes their knowledge and their commitment, but questions their motivation. He compares them to white-washed tombs, beautiful on the outside but dead on the inside. He compares them with a dirty cup, again presentable on the outside, but the inside is corrupt (Matthew 23:25-27). Here again, rationality and dedication are insufficient if not corresponding to honest emotions. Paul also points to the knowledge of God alone being insufficient (Romans 1:21). The rich young ruler also attempted to gain favor by performance.

What if our desire, knowledge or will is lacking? God builds desire in us (Philippians 2:13), and for that we have to turn to Him.

Follow Your Heart?

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

The Bible says the heart is deceitful. Mental health practices, however, often encourages one to listen to the heart. “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life” (Proverbs 4:23). Perhaps the heart is deceitful, and God works to change the heart. “The wise in heart are called discerning, and gracious words promote instruction (Proverbs 16:21).

How might God work through the heart? There are many accounts in the Bible. Knowing truth and one’s experiences of emotion seem to be primary ways God works through the heart. For example, knowing the truth can change the way one feels. It may not eliminate unwanted human emotions, but positive emotions are added, like hope, gratitude, or joy. When Jesus foretells the destruction of Jerusalem, He tells his followers to not let their hearts be dulled by the worries of this life (Luke 21:34). In the Old Testament, for another example, when the Israelites were desperate it was an occasion for God’s intervention. “The Lord Himself will fight for you. Just stay calm” (Exodus 14:14).

God also works through these experiences of both positive and negative emotions.  The Israelite’s faith was founded on the fulfillment of God’s promises.  Another example in the Old Testament occurred when Jonah was angry that God spared the city of Nineveh, God changed Jonah through an experience of emotion. When Jonah felt a loss when the plant giving him shade died, he understood how God would feel if He lost the city (Jonah 4). This experience changed his emotions. God may even direct one to have such an experience: “Don’t sin by letting anger control you. Think about it overnight and remain silent” (Psalms 4:4).

Changing one’s heart, in which the Bible includes knowledge, emotion, and will, always involves not only Truth, but an encounter with Truth. “I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the LORD” (Jeremiah 24:7).

The Rich Young Ruler

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

Maybe you have heard the story of the rich young ruler who asked Jesus what does he have to do to get to heaven. Jesus did not tell him to give ten percent; he told him to give away his belongings and follow him. The rich young ruler went away very sad. Still today there are many who strive to please their god, trying to attain an external standard instead of being internally driven.

How might this rich young man respond if he understood Jesus when Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30). Or what would he think when Jesus said the truth shall set you free (John 8:32)? How would he respond to Paul when he wrote in 2 Corinthians 9:7, “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver”? Or to Paul’s wish in Philemon 4, that “any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced”?

Some scholars believe that this rich young ruler later did follow Jesus. Jesus allowed him to go through a process, a change of heart.

Stress Management Tips

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

Here’s a Top Ten List of helpful approaches to stress management, incorporating Biblical approaches. “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; he rescues those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18).

1. Relax. “If any of you are having trouble, pray” (James 5:13). “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10a).  Relaxation techniques include breathing techniques, tensing and relaxing muscles, meditation, and visualization. “But you, O Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Psalms 86:15).

2. Recognize what you are feeling and wanting.  “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts” (Psalm 139:23). Recognize triggers and old patterns. Observe how your thoughts and actions affect your emotions.

3. Resolve problems. List options that are in your control. Take one step at a time. Allow imperfection and a growth process. “After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” (Gal. 3:3).

4. Rethink. “Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious, – the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse” (Phil. 4:8). “People need more than bread for their life; they must feed on every word of God” (Matt. 4:4). Identify the thoughts behind your emotion to distinguish between truth and exaggerated thinking, facts versus fears.

5. Release your emotion. “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (James 5:16). Allow the emotion through talking, writing, creative endeavors, and physical exercise.

6. Refocus. “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matt. 6:34). “Come to me all who are tired from carrying heavy loads and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). Refocus especially when dwelling on a problem does not help. Refocus on one thing at a time, on good and simple things that are often overlooked, on humor, and on giving to others.

7. Relationships. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses” (Heb. 4:15a). “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we ought to love one another. . . There is no fear in love” (I John 4:11). The necessity of relationships include God, family, friends, and small groups at church (Ecclesiastes 4:12).

8. Routine gives a sense of accomplishment and stability using realistic expectations. “After looking at the way things are on this earth, here’s what I’ve decided is the best way to live: Take care of yourself, have a good time, and make the most of whatever job you have for as long as God gives you life. And that’s about it. That’s the human lot. Yes, we should make the most of what God gives, both the bounty and the capacity to enjoy it, accepting what’s given and delighting in the work. It’s God’s gift! God deals out joy in the present, the now. It’s useless to brood over how long we might live” (Ecclesiastes 5:18-20).

9. Recreate. God commanded festivals, created things for enjoyment. Take breaks, and real or imagined vacations. “Oh yes—God takes pleasure in your pleasure!” (Ecclesiastes 9:7).

10. Refuel. Routine recharging is needed through sleep, diet, and exercise. “So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life – your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life – and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him.” (Romans 12:1).

Arrestin Anxiety

An exploration on how Christianity impacts mental health counseling.