Should We Leave Our Marriages for Greener Pastures?

The New York Times just published a stomach-turner on the dissolution of a marriage.  It’s called “After the Affair,” and it’s by a woman named Judy Wachs (HT: Ben Domenech). The piece details Wachs’s discovery of her husband’s affair.  Her extension of forgiveness is commendable, but then the piece takes a strongly dispiriting turn:

And when I finally left our marriage after 22 years, not for another man but to strike out on my own, he showed me the same empathy and understanding that I had shown him more than a decade before. Instead of parting with acrimony, we were able to move on with love, tenderness and great memories. He eventually found a new woman to love and marry, and I now consider her among my closest friends.

I’m so grateful he and I didn’t toss away a chance at all those wonderful years together over a mere affair. He is still, to this day, my best friend and the love of my life. And this weekend, as we do every year, he, his wife, our grown children and I are all gathering to give thanks. We have plenty to be thankful for.

Read the whole thing.

This is a narrative that Christians must reckon with. We will hear it more and more as time passes. The congratulatory tone of this piece is striking and represents a vastly different take on the institution of marriage than that held by previous generations. Let’s be clear: marriage has never been easy. It’s hard work. It requires effort. We’re kidding ourselves if we think that marriage used to be a walk in the park, and now it’s tough. From the historic fall of Adam and Eve, marriage has been tough (see Genesis 3). We can thus sympathize with this element of Wachs’s article, even as we can commend her for her past forgiveness of her husband’s affair.

But here’s where things get tricky. Marriage calls for not merely a period of commitment. It calls for a lifetime of commitment. The archetype of wedlock is Jesus Christ and his church (see Ephesians 5:22-33). Christ does not marry his covenant people for a while, while it suits him. He binds us to himself for eternity. Our marriages are a reflection of this greater relationship, this bond that stretches over all the ages to come. To break our earthly covenants merely because it suits us at a given point, because it just feels like it’s time to strike out, is to lie about Christ and his love.

I actually believe that divorce is permissible in cases of adultery (Matthew 5:31-32). But with many other Christians, I’ve chosen my words carefully here. Divorce is permissible but not commanded. The forgiveness of adultery is a live option and a powerful one. When staying together is possible, Christians will rejoice to see grace extended in cases where grievous sins have been committed. Such action will remind us of the lavish and undeserved kindness God has bestowed on his bride, the church. Whatever course an aggrieved spouse takes, however, divorce should only happen on the basis of “sexual immorality” and not personal convenience.

I am glad that Wachs has maintained a healthy relationship with her husband and family. But we must not see triumph in such a situation. Marriage is not a flexible institution. It is by design a permanent institution. We should break the covenant of marriage only with the most sober of choices and in the most serious of circumstances. We should not dissolve our bonds merely because it is time to try something new.

As Christians, let us resolve to hold fast to one another. Let us forgive lavishly. Let us love extravagantly.  Let us speak a better word about marriage than the world speaks. Let us exercise what Bonhoeffer called “costly grace.” Life is hard; sin is real; real pain will accrue in marriage. But our bond as husbands and wives is not designed to be conditional. We are bound together. This is intentional on God’s part. It requires that we commit ourselves over and over and over again to the discipline of forgiving, bearing with one another, and going back to the basics of the covenant we have made.  Husbands, by the way, should lead in this discipline. Leadership means responsibility.

In actual fact, there is a glory in the ordinary. We are not naturally awed by couples who pull apart over conflict, who dissolve their bond because it just feels right to do. We are stunned when we see a 50-year marriage, a 60-year marriage, a 70-year marriage. There is something there that transcends this world. There is a natural force in such bonds that is impossible to argue with in logical terms. A covenant was made; a covenant was kept. No argument, no point of logic, can puncture such a union. The world and the devil cannot tear apart such a bond. Two people have become one, truly.

Terrible sins happen. Jesus knew this and taught accordingly. His teaching is good. In making nuances and provisions for a sinful world, though, he also showed us what is ideal. He married a sinful and adulterous people. He did what Hosea was called to do, yet he did it for all eternity. This is our ideal as married couples. This is our call: to forgive, and kill sin together, and to forgive more, and to make it all the way to glory.

There, our earthly union gives way to a greater bond, one that lasts forever and cannot break apart.

(Image: Brian Rea/NYT)

  • Craig

    Our Owen talks as if there’s marriage in heaven, and as if those stern words to the seven churches in Revelation weren’t a part of God’s holy Word.

    Our friend Bob says Amen. Says Owen: so long as there’s no sexual immorality, divorce isn’t permissible–even when there’s severe, physical abuse (which Bob prefers to call “manly discipline,” or simply “tough, biblical love”).

  • mikewittmer

    I honestly don’t understand this woman. Her views on love and marriage just make no sense to me, but this seems to be the logical cul de sac of where we’re headed. It’s hard to argue against gay marriage when marriage doesn’t mean anything anymore.

  • Jethro

    Question: when there has been adultery followed by divorce, can/should the adulterer remarry? Can he or she marry the one with whom they had the affair?

    • ostrachan

      I do not think that the adulterer can remarry, no. I do think that the aggrieved party can remarry, and without guilt.

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  • rvs

    Everyone has committed adultery, Prof. Strachan. Matt 5:27.

    • ostrachan

      True. But there is a difference between mental and physical adultery, for sure.

      • rvs

        I would not describe the difference as theological. I would describe it as merely procedural. The difference is trivial, in other words, which is what I take to be one of the key points of Matt. 5:27. Also, thank you for writing on this topic.

  • Barbara Roberts

    For those dealing with domestic abuse, please know that the Bible allows divorce in such cases. If you doubt this, read Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion.