All of this became very real to me when I began getting to know my wife, Cecile, who had been divorced several months before I met her. The full story is told in my book, Marriage, Family, and the Image of God, but I want to share here, briefly, why a young man who had grown up in the church, was waiting for sex until marriage, and had dedicated his life to pursuing God's purposes, chose to marry a divorced woman.
- Because God had forgiven her, just as he had forgiven me.
I'm going to be frank: if you live your life thinking you're basically a good person, trying to live by what the Bible says, and priding yourself on your morality, I seriously doubt that you're a Christian. Being a Christian means that you know you needed forgiveness, that you understand how sinful you really are, and that you live a life of gratitude to God for his mercy on your life. And once you understand that, you understand that everyone else is in need of the same mercy that God showed you. That's the point of the parable of the unmerciful servant. That's the point of Jesus' illustration of the Pharisee and the tax collector. That's why Jesus told a mob that he who is without sin should cast the first stone. That's the consistent message of scripture.
It doesn't matter if the sins God had forgiven me from are different from the sins that God had forgiven Cecile from. We both stand before God exactly the same, as forgiven people. If God was no longer holding Cecile's past against her, what right did I have to do so? No matter how you parse scriptures to embrace or avoid so-called "exception clauses," or what verses you use to trump other verses in support of your understanding of divorce, if you don't understand forgiveness, then you don't understand the Christian faith at all.
- Because infidelity had already occurred, was ongoing, and there was no reasonable hope for a change.
But since I've brought up the exception clause, I may as well deal with it. Jesus says in Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9 that divorce and remarriage constitute adultery "except for sexual immorality" (or, in some translations, "except for fornication"). The Greek word is porneia (I trust I won't have to explain the "porn" root-word) and is a broad term encompassing sexual sin in general. It is not a narrow word that means unfaithfulness during a betrothal period, as some have argued.
It's very interesting to me that Jesus is asked a question in terms of divorce, but he answers it in terms of marriage. He's asked when divorce is allowable; he responds by explaining what legal divorce and remarriage is: namely, adultery. Therefore, strictly speaking, Jesus isn't giving porneia as an exception that allows divorce in some cases. He's simply stating the fact that divorce and remarriage constitute adultery, except when they don't--which is in the case where sexual sin is already taking place. Jesus is saying that divorce and remarriage break the one-flesh bond that is created in marriage, except when the bond is already broken through sexual immorality.
In Cecile's case, her ex-husband was already living with his girlfriend, and the two of them were to get married before Cecile and I got married. I actually suggested to Cecile at the outset that God's first and best plan would be for her ex-husband to come to know Jesus and for the two of them to be reconciled and remarried. She was young in Christ and deeply hurt and didn't receive that advice well at all. But I still believe that that is the best possible outcome, even when the one-flesh bond has been broken by adultery, even when it is repeated and unrepented. But as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:15-16, "if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace." There are some amazing stories of people whom God has called to wait in singleness for their spouses to repent and return to them, and some seemingly irreconcilable marriages have been restored. I personally know a couple who were divorced for years and later remarried. It's an incredible testimony. But that doesn't always happen. "How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?" Paul asks. Scripture does not require that the believer wait forever. God has called us to peace. God has called us to peace. God has called us to peace.
- Because God is in the business of redeeming messed-up, broken, and sinful people, not avoiding them.
Growing up in church youth groups, you get the impression that God's perfect plan regarding marriage is that you remain a virgin and pray that God brings The Right One™ to you. The Right One™ will also be a virgin, perfectly suited to your needs and temperament, and will have no baggage to deal with in the marriage relationship. In fact, The Right One™ will have no history at all, having been created ex nihilo for you five minutes prior to your first meeting. You will then have 2.6 perfect children (5.7 in rural areas) and will never have any marital difficulties of any kind, because you've avoided the dreaded fate of marrying The Wrong One™.
But that's not how God interacts with his people. He didn't abandon Adam and Eve to their fate, and create a new pristine pure species who had never fallen to be his people. His plan for salvation didn't involve a command from On High, but rather involved God himself becoming human, choosing to be one of us, mixing together with sinful humanity--especially the most obviously sinful--and ultimately bearing our sin in his own flesh. People sometimes emphasize God's holiness by saying that he can't even look upon sin, based on a misunderstanding of Habakkuk 1:13, but the truth is that God has involved himself with sinful humanity throughout history, and I for one am deeply grateful.
If we are created in the image of God, if we are being conformed to the image of his Son, if our marriages are a picture of Christ and the Church, then we need to interact with other people, including our future spouses, as God does. And that means not holding their past against them once they've been forgiven.
But naivete is its own form of baggage. Everyone has a history. Bad things have happened to the person you're considering. Other bad things haven't, and the person may not be able to relate. No matter whom you choose, God will use what's in their life and what's in yours to refine and shape you. God uses everything. Nothing goes to waste.
I am deeply grateful for Cecile. She has been a blessing in my life like no one that I have ever known. In some ways, I may have brought more baggage into our relationship than she did, so her acceptance of me is at least as remarkable as my acceptance of her. I am grateful to God for bringing her into my life, and he is continuing to make us The Right Person for one another 23 years later.
To know more about Cecile's and my story, and for more of my perspective on biblical marriage and family, check out my book, Marriage, Family, and the Image of God .