Before You Leave Your Wife

Five Words for Struggling Men

I used to wonder why so many marriages ended in divorce. Why so many of my friends through grade school, high school, and college were the children of divorce. And then in the years after college, why so many of my peers had already been divorced.

And then I married. And like any other married person, I suddenly felt how painfully hard communication can be between a man and a woman. I groaned over how grueling decision-making often became. I saw how marriage drew more sin out of me than any other relationship had before. I was confronted with how proud, defensive, and sensitive I can be when I am sinned against. I stumbled into all the typical (and explosive) marital land mines — budget, schedule, cleanliness, conflict, in-laws. I began to trace just how much our family backgrounds were shaping (and often straining) our new family.

Dating had sweetly accentuated our similarities; marriage profoundly stressed our differences. What had felt so compatible, so safe, so, well, easy at the altar, suddenly felt, at times, impossible. In other words, we discovered why many people get divorced.

And while the number of divorces has swelled in recent years, at least in America, temptations to give up and abandon our vows are almost as old as marriage itself. Since that first husband and first wife tasted the awful fruit of sin, Satan has seeded the thought that divorce might actually be better than marriage — that, whatever God might have said about marriage, surely he would understand why it would be different in our case.

God confronts temptations toward divorce directly with a tough but hope-filled word through the prophet Malachi, a place we may not think to look for marriage counsel and clarity. I don’t intend to address here husbands who have suffered adultery or abandonment. The men in Malachi’s day, and the men I have in mind, were husbands whose love had grown cold. They left because they thought another woman, another marriage, another life might finally satisfy them.

Five Wakeup Calls from God

The minor prophet Malachi gives us a surprisingly clear and profound (and often overlooked) vision for marriage.

“Sinfulness in marriage always begins with sinfulness in our relationship with God.”

In Malachi’s day, husbands in Israel were divorcing their wives because their hearts had grown cold (Malachi 2:16), and because many of them wanted to marry foreign women (Malachi 2:11). Why foreign women? “After the return from exile in Babylon, Judah was a small, disadvantaged region of the Persian Empire, surrounded by much more powerful neighbors. In such a situation, marriage connections were a useful means of gaining political and economic advantage” (Zephaniah, Haggai, Malachi, 133). Essentially, many of the men had abandoned their wives in search of a better life. They decided to provide for themselves, even if it meant sacrificing their bride and children.

Times were bleak as the people returned from exile. The letter begins, “‘I have loved you,’ says the Lord. But you say, ‘How have you loved us?’” (Malachi 1:2). The people were feeling abandoned by God. Suffering made them desperate, some of them desperate enough to abandon their covenants and desert their families. Beneath the marital infidelity was a deeper fear and wrestling — not with a spouse, but with God. Sinfulness in marriage begins with sinfulness in our relationship with God.

So, knowing something of what these men were facing and how awfully they responded, how does God confront them and call them to repentance and faithfulness in marriage? He rebukes them by reminding them what marriage is and why it’s worth guarding and keeping with all our strength. And in doing so, he gives us five great words for Christian husbands tempted to leave.

1. You made a promise.

The Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. (Malachi 2:14)

Though she is your wife by covenant. As God confronts these men who have gone after other, more desirable women, what does he remind them of first? You made a promise. From the very beginning, God said, “a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Hold fast here does not mean a warm, affectionate embrace, but an exclusive and steadfast devotion — a covenant (Deuteronomy 10:20; Proverbs 2:16–17).

When you vowed, before God and witnesses, “I take you, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part,” what did you mean? Was your vow merely an ambition — “Well, we tried . . .” — or was it a promise?

A wedding is a celebration not of love found, but of love declared, love promised. We make promises precisely because, as committed as we feel in our white dress and rented tuxedo, we may want to leave one day. Because marriage really is hard. If we abandon our promise when it doesn’t serve us anymore, we prove that the vow wasn’t really a promise, but just a formal way to get what we wanted.

2. Divorce vandalizes what God made.

Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? (Malachi 2:15)

As any man considers divorce, he must remember that marriage is far more than “the legally or formally recognized union of two people as partners in a personal relationship.” A marriage is a joining together of a man and a woman by God. And not just by God, but with something of him in their union — “with a portion of the Spirit.” This is not merely a social or physical union, but a spiritual one. And as many a wedding officiant has noted, “a threefold cord is not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:12) — husband, wife, and Lord.

“A wedding is a celebration not of love found, but of love declared, love promised.”

The picture the prophet paints comes close to one Jesus himself paints in Matthew 19:4–6 (quoting Genesis 2:24): “Have you not read, . . . ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” Divorce rips apart a divine masterpiece. However you met, and however you dated, and however you decided to marry, God married you. God made you one. Would you undo what he has done?

3. Divorce lies to children about God.

And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. (Malachi 2:15)

God made marriage to be an abounding, multiplying, fruitful covenant. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth’” (Genesis 1:27–28). When he made husband and wife, he was seeking offspring.

And not just any offspring, but offspring that would love, honor, and obey him: “The Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (Deuteronomy 30:6). God wants godly offspring from our marriages.

These offspring are not always biological: “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 John 4). So we do not have to bear sons or daughters to carry out God’s charge to be fruitful and multiply. In fact, the most important and enduring dimensions are spiritual (making disciples), not biological (having babies).

So how might your divorce affect your children spiritually? What damage, over decades, might it do? If faithful marriages retell the story of the gospel (Ephesians 5:25), inviting our children into the indescribable love of God in Christ — what would divorce say to them? Imagine the barriers it might drive between them and God. Imagine how the pain and betrayal might make them question his love and faithfulness. Imagine how your divorce could confuse and unsettle their faith (and the faith of other young people who look up to you).

4. Divorce soaks a soul in violence.

The man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. (Malachi 2:16)

The strongest word to these husbands comes at the end: if a man divorces his wife for lack of love, he “covers his garment with violence.” It sounds terrible enough, even to modern ears, but what does it mean?

The garment is a common metaphor in Scripture that unfolds the quality of a person’s character. The psalmist says of the wicked, “Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them as a garment” (Psalm 73:6). Similarly, in the New Testament, Jesus says to one of the seven churches, “Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy” (Revelation 3:4). He means that they had kept their souls unsoiled by the stains of unrepentant sin.

And violence is a picture not only of the cruelty of divorce. It is a violent act, especially in that day, when a woman was far more dependent on her husband for provision and protection. Even today, to abandon your wife is an act of violence against her (however civil the proceedings may have been). A man who divorces his wife harms the one God gave him to protect.

But violence is about more than relational brutality, because this man wears violence as a garment. Violence is not just what he does, but who he is. He has not just ended his marriage with violence, but he has soaked his soul in violence. This kind of corruption is what God saw when he looked out over his fallen world: “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence” (Genesis 6:11). And how did God respond? With righteous and devastating judgment against them (Genesis 6:13).

And so this violence, this soul-steeped sinfulness, is not just violence against a wife, but violence against God — against his will and commands. The violence is not simply marital harshness, but aggression toward God. It’s the kind of rebellion that invited the flooding of the whole world.

5. God listens to men who stay.

How we handle marital struggles is so crucial, in part, because God has tied our faithfulness in marriage to our experience of God. No man can abandon his wife and still thrive spiritually. “Husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered” (1 Peter 3:7). Even if a man thinks he can thrive spiritually while neglecting or abandoning his wife (or if he fools those around him into thinking so), it is only a mirage that will end in destruction. And that destruction will harm far more than him.

Malachi strikes the same warning as he confronts the men: “You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand” — in other words, you weep because your prayers are being hindered. “But you say, ‘Why does he not [regard us]?’ Because the Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless” (Malachi 2:13–14). God refused to receive their offerings or answer their prayers because they had refused to love their wives.

“A man who divorces his wife harms the one God gave him to protect.”

How you treat your wife will affect how God treats you. Not because husbands earn his love by our works, but because our works reveal our faith. If we’re faithful in marriage only when it’s pleasant or convenient, we betray how small God and his commands really are in our eyes. We show whether we are truly men of faith or faithless men. And faithless men do not have the ear of heaven.

Guard Yourselves in Spirit

As God confronts these men and calls them to remain faithful to their wives, he charges them, more than once, “Guard yourselves in your spirit” (Malachi 2:15, 16). In your spirit. What might that look like for Christian men in struggling marriages?

More than anything, it will mean deep, meaningful, and regular fellowship with the faithful Groom of our souls. The Groom who gave himself for his filthy and unfaithful bride, the church, that he might sanctify and cleanse her (Ephesians 5:25–26). The Husband who, despite how far his wife had run, how many lovers she had known, how often she had lied and left, still says to her — to us,

In that day, declares the Lord, you will call me “My Husband.” . . . And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the Lord. (Hosea 2:16, 19–20)

Men who might leave would do well to spend more time asking why God hasn’t left yet. More time below the beams that bought their forgiveness and life. More time meditating on the wedding day to come, when we will sing,

Let us rejoice and exult
     and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
     and his Bride has made herself ready;
it was granted her to clothe herself
     with fine linen, bright and pure. (Revelation 19:7–8)

If we lack the strength, patience, and resources to stay and love, it is not because God has not provided them. It is only because we have not loved the bride of our youth with the endless help of heaven.