Marriage And Divorce
It would be wrong to leave this matter without some attempt to see what it actually means for the question of divorce at the present time.
We may at the beginning note this. What Jesus laid down was a principle and not a law. To turn this saying of Jesus into a law is gravely to misunderstand it. The Bible does not give us laws; it gives principles which we must prayerfully and intelligently apply to any given situation.
Of the Sabbath the Bible says, "In it you shall not do any work" ( Exodus 20:10 ). In point of fact we know that a complete cessation of work was never possible in any civilization. In an agricultural civilization cattle had still to be tended and cows had to be milked no matter what the day was. In a developed civilization certain public services must go on, or transport will stand still and water, light, and heat will not be available. In any home, especially where there are children, there has to be a certain amount of work.
A principle can never be quoted as a final law; a principle must always be applied to the individual situation. We cannot therefore settle the question of divorce simply by quoting the words of Jesus. That would be legalism; we must take the words of Jesus as a principle to apply to the individual cases as they meet us. That being so, certain truths emerge.
(i) Beyond all doubt the ideal is that marriage should be an indissoluble union between two people, and that marriage should be entered into as a total union of two personalities, not designed to make one act possible, but designed to make all life a satisfying and mutually completing fellowship. That is the essential basis on which we must proceed.
(ii) But life is not, and never can be, a completely tidy and orderly business. Into life there is bound to come sometimes the element of the unpredictable. Suppose, then, that two people enter into the marriage relationship; suppose they do so with the highest hopes and the highest ideals; and then suppose that something unaccountably goes wrong, and that the relationship which should be life's greatest joy becomes hell upon earth. Suppose all available help is called in to mend this broken and terrible situation. Suppose the doctor is called in to deal with physical things; the psychiatrist to deal with psychological things; the priest or the minister to deal with spiritual things. Suppose the trouble still to be there; suppose one of the partners to the marriage to be so constituted physically, mentally or spiritually that marriage is an impossibility, and suppose that discovery could not have been made until the experiment itself had been made--are then these two people to be for ever fettered together in a situation which cannot do other than bring a lifetime of misery to both?
It is extremely difficult to see how such reasoning can be called Christian; it is extremely hard to see Jesus legalistically condemning two people to any such situation. This is not to say that divorce should be made easy, but it is to say that when all the physical and mental and spiritual resources have been brought to bear on such a situation, and the situation remains incurable and even dangerous, then the situation should be ended; and the Church, so far from regarding people who have been involved in such a situation as being beyond the pale, should do everything it can in strength and tenderness to help them. There does not seem any other way than that in which to bring the real Spirit of Christ to bear.
(iii) But in this matter we are face to face with a most tragic situation. It often happens that the things which wreck marriage are in fact the things which the law cannot touch. A man in a moment of passion and failure of control commits adultery and spends the rest of his life in shame and in sorrow for what he did. That he should ever repeat his sin is the least likely thing in the world. Another man is a model of rectitude in public; to commit adultery is the last thing he would do; and yet by a day-to-day sadistic cruelty, a day-to-day selfishness, a day-to-day criticism and sarcasm and mental cruelty, he makes life a hell for those who live with him; and he does it with callous deliberation.
We may well remember that the sins which get into the newspapers and the sins whose consequences are most glaringly obvious need not be in the sight of God the greatest sins. Many a man and many a woman wreck the marriage relationship and yet present to the outer world a front of unimpeachable rectitude.
This whole matter is one to which we might well bring more sympathy and less condemnation, for of all things the failure of a marriage must least be approached in legalism and most in love. In such a case it is not a so-called law that must be conserved; it is human heart and soul. What is wanted is that there should be prayerful care and thought before the married state is entered upon; that if a marriage is in danger of failure every possible medical, psychological and spiritual resource should be mobilized to save it; but, that if there is something beyond the mending, the situation should be dealt with not with rigid legalism, but with understanding love.
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