This chapter is devoted to the concerns that people who are in subsequent marriages, or those who are about to remarry, have. After all, people who remarry want to succeed in their marriages. After nearly four decades of ministry, I have found that people who have suffered through a divorce never want to go through it again.
So far in this section of the book I have written at length about marriage and divorce, and what I believe the Bible teaches on this subject:
- That marriage is between a man and a woman for life.
- That divorce is a sin and if unrepented of will damn the soul to hell just like any other sin.
- That failure at marriage can be repented of and forgiven with the people involved renewed through the grace of God. (A good example of this is seen in the attitude of the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son. This man not only forgave his wayward child but also accepted him back as a full member of the family with all of his rights and privileges returned to him: the ring, robe, sandals and celebration were symbols of this renewal.) With forgiveness, therefore, comes renewal.
I do not believe that dissolving legally contracted marriages, whether they are the second or the tenth, is the way to achieve proper repentance. As I have mentioned previously, repentance requires an acknowledgement of the sin (breaking the vow of marriage) and a change of heart concerning the things that led to this sin (selfishness, dishonesty, impurity, etc.). When reconciliation is possible, I always encourage this, but when other marriages have been contracted after a divorce, I believe the best course of action is to follow Paul's teaching in such matters,
Let each man remain in that condition in which he was called.
- Corinthians 7:20
Remarriage does not remove God from our lives. Marriage, by its very nature, is a call to God to help us live in the way that He has designed us to live: one man and one woman in an intimate, exclusive relationship for life. It is not natural to be alone, whether we are alone because we are single, widowed or divorced (Genesis 2:18). Those who have gone through a divorce and are remarrying know that they have previously failed and want badly to succeed at this most difficult relationship. To these I give the following advice.
Succeeding at Remarriage - Advice
1. Realize That You Are Really Married
Some think that subsequent marriages are not the real thing. For some reason or other they incorrectly believe that their unions are not godly marriages or not as good as their first ones because God is displeased with them and will not help. Even worse, they are under the impression that their marriage is some form of adultery. These thoughts are based on the false notion that marriage cannot be dissolved, and before God you are always married to your first spouse as long as they are alive.
In the previous chapter I explained that death dissolves a marriage in a righteous way (Romans 7), and divorce dissolves a marriage in an unrighteous way. Either way, the marriage is dissolved. The Bible never calls subsequent marriages adultery. The indissolubility of marriage is a Roman Catholic idea that began at the Council of Trent in 1545 AD. The doctrine put forth was that only God could marry or unmarry a couple. The goal of this Catholic dogma was to provide the Roman Church with authority in marital affairs, an authority not given to it by God or the Apostles.
The Bible, however, has the last word on marriage, not clergymen or churches. II Timothy 3:16 says, "All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, reproof, correction and training..." This "teaching" includes instruction concerning marriage. Ministers, elders and teachers have no authority in marital affairs other than teaching what the Bible says about marriage and helping those who are married remain faithful to God and each other.
Subsequent (second or more) marriages are not first marriages, but they are marriages in God's eyes as well as in society's eyes. God will help you with them if you ask. Society (includes family) must respect what God respects and honors. Jesus tells us to forgive seventy times seven, surely God can forgive one failed marriage and help a person get it right (if they are willing) the second or third time.
When you are legally married you are bound both by God and society to be faithful to your spouse until death because you are really married to this and only this one person, whether you are in a first or second marriage.
2. Your Marriage is Perfect Through the Cross
If you were a remarried unbeliever, you would be legally married to the second person, but your soul would be charged with the sin of adultery because of your divorce (when a person divorces without just cause, the sin committed is called adultery). Even if you legally divorced and remarried ten times, each time the sin of adultery would be charged to your soul. At death the world would bury a much-married person but hold nothing against you because all was done legally (this was the defense used by the Pharisees to excuse their own improper divorces). However, God would condemn you to hell because you divorced without just cause and committed adultery as a result, not because you remarried. The person who becomes a Christian, even though he may be divorced and remarried, is forgiven for his adultery and thus made perfect in God's sight.
The Christian who divorces and repents is also forgiven for his sin of adultery. Many find this hard to accept, but God's grace does not make a distinction about which sins to forgive or not. Repentance requires a change of heart and a change of attitude, but what makes the person perfect in God's sight is neither how he was able to fix his former marriage, nor how well he succeeds in his subsequent marriage (repentance requires that he try however). Perfection is a free gift given to a person who believes in Jesus and expresses that belief in repentance, baptism and continued faithful living. Regardless of your marital status, God makes you perfect through the cross of Christ, not through relative success in marital relationships.
3. Follow the Bible's Advice for the Remarried
I know that there is no chapter in the Bible addressed specifically to people who are remarried. But there is a lot of advice for people who have failed, and is that not what divorce and remarriage are all about? Weak and sinful people who have failed at a complex and demanding relationship are trying once again to succeed. Why is it that we are so gracious to those who have failed at telling the truth, failed at believing in Jesus, failed at not killing other people, but deny this grace for those who have failed at marriage? God is kind and patient towards all those who fail and are willing, with His help, to try again. To these, He provides the following help and advice in His word:
Forget the Past
The past is where the failure and pain are, and needs to be let go. When people are forgiven by God, they can forgive themselves and turn away from the past. Dwelling on what happened, what might have been done differently or why it all happened will not change the past. It will only keep the past alive in the present. This goes for the guilty as well as the victims in a failed marriage. Trying to fix the past by punishing ourselves, punishing our ex-partner or bargaining with God only manages to delay the healing. Some people do not want to heal because constant pain is their way of trying to atone for their past failure in marriage.
Paul, in speaking of his former life and the terrible failure in it says, "forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Jesus Christ." (Philippians 3:13-14). Paul had been forgiven, and the way that he forgave himself was that he refused to dwell on the failure he had been absolved of, and concentrated on the future that God had freely offered him.
Forgetting the past is not only healthy, it is the ongoing way that we express our faith to God. Forgetting the past says, "I believe you have forgiven me and I focus on you, Lord, and not my failure."
Learn from the Past
The past is there, the failure (whether the fault is ours or someone else's, or a mixture of both) is there as well. The failure is history and there are many reminders of it. The key is to not dwell and mourn over it, but to use the past by learning how it can help us today. Repentance is a change of heart and the past helps us to understand what we need to do in order to repent. The past shows us what we contributed to our failed relationship and thus what needs to be changed, improved, eliminated or controlled.
Many second marriages fail because the people (guilty or innocent) enter into them with the same attitude that they had in their first marriage. Many fail because issues remain unresolved and they end up blaming second spouses for the things the original spouses did. This is why second marriages often fail at a higher rate than first ones do.
My advice to divorced people is to get counseling so that they can learn from the past (who they are, why they failed, etc.) before entering into another serious relationship. Getting married again does not solve problems from the first marriage, these need to be solved before getting married again because subsequent marriages bring a whole new set of problems. If a person has learned something from the past, they will be better equipped to deal with the future.
Let Your Life and Change be a Witness for Christ
Paul the Apostle often began his sermons with the story of his conversion: how a person who despised Christians grew to love the church so much that he was ready to die for it. If you base your marriage on biblical principles, if you live your life as a faithful and fruitful Christian, if people see that it is possible to take a failed life and marriage, and through Jesus Christ build a new life as well as a new and wonderful marriage, God will be glorified. Jesus said, "Let your light shine before men in such a way that they see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven." (Matthew 5:16). A loving relationship and a Christian home, these are good works even if they are produced by a subsequent marriage. They will honor God and provide a witness for the power of Christ in your life.
Jesus came to save, to build, to encourage and to equip, not to judge, punish and criticize. If you have failed at marriage for whatever reason, regardless of the times:
- Ask Jesus to forgive you.
- Forget and learn from the mistakes of the past.
- Let the Spirit (through God's word) teach you how to succeed.
- Offer your new success to God as a sacrifice of thanksgiving and praise.
God is interested in our renewal, and this is true in the renewal of marriage as well as every other area in our lives.