A friend of mine told me that she was doing a show on her podcast discussing what Christians can learn about God from divorce. That’s certainly a great topic for Christians to think about, and there is a TON of information in the Bible about divorce. There's even an entire book of the Bible devoted to that topic. But I think that the most important thing any Christian can learn about divorce is how to avoid it, and that is found in I Cor 7.
In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul expressed his personal desire for believers to stay single and not get married (7:8). He explained that this was just his personal opinion on the matter and not a command from God (7:6), and he interrupted his opinion by emphasizing the command from God that those who are divorced are not to remarry (7:10-11, Mark 10:11-12). Paul then reemphasized his opinion that Christians should stay single before launching into a description of marriage that I believe gives us the key to avoiding divorce.
Paul contrasted the desire that a married believer has toward pleasing his or her spouse against the desire that an unmarried believer has toward pleasing God.
"He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord: But he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife. There is difference also between a wife and a virgin. The unmarried woman careth for the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit: but she that is married careth for the things of the world, how she may please her husband." (1 Cor. 7:32-34)
In both cases, Paul presented a sort of idyllic situation. He presents singleness as the better of the two because a believer in that situation can focus entirely on pleasing God. As he explained in the next verse, he encouraged singleness so that believers "attend upon the Lord without distraction." (1 Cor. 7:35) But he was quick to point out that there is no sin in getting married (7:36).
The thing that has always struck me about this passage is Paul's description of married believers. Paul described the marriage between two believers as a situation in which the husband lives to please his wife and the wife lives to please her husband so much so that their desire to please each other sometimes distracts them from doing the work of the Lord. Paul saw this as such a hindrance to the work of the Lord that he wished for all believers to be single and avoid marriage altogether, but did you notice that he never once condemned this type of marriage.
Paul argued for singleness by contrasting the best possible single life against the best possible married life and concluding that single life was better. This is a very encouraging argument for those who are single, but I think that it is also a very educational lesson for those who are married. When contrasting the best single life against the best married life, Paul didn't use a married life in which both spouses were completely sold out to God. He used a married life in which both spouses were completely sold out to each other. And that is what I believe is the key to a successful marriage.
My wife and I have been married for almost 15 years, and I like to tell people that its just been one fight after another for the entire 15 years. I keep trying to live to please her, and she keeps trying to live to please me, and we have a GREAT time fighting to out please each other. The funny things is, even though she wins some of those fights and I win others, neither of us has ever lost.
We are living proof that the key to a happy and successful marriage is to live exactly as Paul said. The believing husband should live to please his wife, and the believing wife should live to please her husband. In doing this, both of them please God by presenting the world with a clear picture of the relationship between Christ and the church. Each of them may have accomplished more for God as an individual if they had remained single, but the lack of individual accomplishments for God is more than made up by the testimony of a happy marriage in the midst of this broken world.
UPDATE: A few months after writing this, I had the opportunity to preach on the topic of marriage at my church, and I explored this view in much more detail. You can listen to the message here:
Bill Fortenberry is a Christian philosopher and historian in Birmingham, AL. Bill's work has been cited in several legal journals, and he has appeared as a guest on shows including The Dr. Gina Show, The Michael Hart Show, and Real Science Radio.
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