Hope for Hard Marriages
Podcast listener Angel writes in: “Pastor John, I grew up Christian, and I always planned to marry a good Christian man that brought me closer to God, held me accountable, and shared the same beliefs. I’ll skip all of the details on how I got to this point. I ended up marrying someone that claimed to be Christian, but who lives a lifestyle contrary to one founded on Christian values and beliefs. I’m at a loss. He doesn’t want a divorce, and I don’t want to live in sin. I know Paul teaches that we are to stay with our unbelieving spouse, but were those God’s words? I don’t believe that divorce is pleasing to God, but I don’t know that my marriage is either.”
This question is huge. This has so many dimensions and not to mention the sadness and the heaviness that is in that sentence, “I won’t give you all the details.” So please, Angel, know that I have tasted enough trouble in marriage and I have listened to enough people with trouble that I don’t make light of anything you have said here. And everything I have to say I say with a sense of gravity.
What should we say? The first issue I have just got to deal with is her words, “I know Paul teaches that we are to stay with our unbelieving spouse, but were those God’s words?” Now, I am not sure what she is saying there, but I am going to tackle a problem that she might be addressing, because in the passage of Scripture in 1 Corinthians 7 where Paul teaches on this, he says, “not I, but the Lord” in one case (1 Corinthians 7:10) and “I, not the Lord” in another (1 Corinthians 7:12). So, I wonder if Angel is wondering, “Is Paul just giving his opinion here and these are not God’s words?” So, let me read this and tackle that issue for just a few minutes.
It says in 1 Corinthians 7:10–11, “To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.” And then he addresses the rest — this is 1 Corinthians 7:12–13: “To the rest I say (I, not the Lord)” — and that is what I am wondering if she is asking about — “that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him.” That is what she is referring to, and she wonders: Are those God’s words or just Paul’s words? And I am going to give four reasons why I believe they are God’s words and Paul’s words.
1. Paul was recognized as one of the authoritative apostles of the risen Lord to speak on his behalf in Galatians 2:7–8 when they saw, Paul said, that he “had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles).” Paul believed that he was and others credited him as being one of the authorized apostles to speak for the risen Christ.
2. At the end of this unit in 1 Corinthians 7:40, I believe Paul claims to have the Spirit of God in what he is teaching. He says, “I think that I too have the Spirit of God.” And he is saying that over the whole chapter.
3. In 1 Corinthians 14:37–38, Paul writes with the incredible claim of authority of the Lord Jesus when he says, “If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized.” So, Paul has this enormous claim on the most practical issues to be speaking with the authority of Christ that even prophets should submit to.
“Don’t make your faithfulness depend on your husband’s change, but do keep hoping and praying for it.”
4. The last point is regarding “not I, but the Lord” and “I, not the Lord.” Here is what he says: “I, not the Lord” refers, I think, to the fact that in the one case he has an actual explicit teaching from the historical Jesus as we have it in the Gospels, whereas in the second case, when he is talking about marriage to an unbeliever, he doesn’t have any explicit teaching from the historical Jesus in the Gospels. And so, he is saying: I am rendering my apostolic, authoritative judgment on that. I don’t have anything to quote from Jesus.
In Mark 10:11–12, Jesus says this: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” So, Paul has a clear word. Evidently he had access to this tradition in what was recorded in the Gospel of Mark.
But then it comes to, “Well, tell us whether that applies to being married to an unbeliever.” You can read all four Gospels and you won’t find Jesus addressing that. And so Paul, I think, is saying, “I, not the Lord” in the sense that the Lord has spoken in his historical life on this issue. But Paul speaks, “if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him” (1 Corinthians 7:12–13). So when she asks, “Did God say this? Is this God’s will?” my answer is, “Yes.”
Jesus and the Unbelieving Spouse
Here is the one other thing I think we need to deal with in her question. She writes, “He [my husband] doesn’t want divorce, and I don’t want to live in sin.” I wish I knew what she meant there. “I don’t believe that divorce is pleasing to God, but I don’t know that my marriage is either.” So, I need to know what she means when she is saying, “I don’t want to live in sin.”
Now, I am going to assume something. This is really important. I am going to assume that you are not talking about a case where your life or the life of your children is threatened or a situation where he may be beating you. In that case, you should seek safety from your friends and the church, and you should bring in the authorities, both church and civil, to restrain him. So, I am going to assume that is not what she is talking about when she says that somehow she might be drawn into sin here.
With regard to that general point, should she ever let herself be drawn into sin by somehow being a good wife? And my answer is, 1 Peter 3:1–6 makes it very clear that being a faithful, submissive Christian wife does not mean you should ever follow your husband into sin. The whole point of that passage is that a woman has a new Lord, Jesus, above her husband, and she is trying to win her husband to join her in that allegiance to Jesus.
“No one may have any idea of the sacrifices you make to love your spouse. But God knows them all, and will repay you.”
So, if your husband is asking of you that you do things that are sinful, you should say to him, humbly, something like this: “I would love to follow your lead in this marriage. But when you ask me to do something that is sin, you are asking me to offend the One who has an even greater authority in my life than you have. I mean Jesus. And I cannot do it.” I think that is a submissive way not to walk into sin.
She says, “I wonder if my marriage is pleasing to the Lord” — and this might be the last thing we can tackle. I would just say that you should focus not on whether your marriage is pleasing to the Lord, but on whether you are. So here are just a few encouragements:
1. First Peter 3:1–6 addresses your situation exactly. It gives guidance for you in trying to win a husband who does not obey the word. It doesn’t answer every question. I know that. It will leave questions unanswered, but the Lord has given it to us, and it is a gift to us in marriage.
2. Second encouragement: the Lord promises to give you all the grace you need to be pleasing to him yourself. “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work” (2 Corinthians 9:8). Whatever your husband does, thinks, or feels, God looks to you alone for whether you are walking in sin — not your husband.
3. Marriage is a parable of covenant faithfulness, not covenant bliss. Your faithfulness to your vows is pleasing to the Lord no matter how much sadness is in your heart or in his heart. It tells the truth. This covenant keeping, your marriage, is telling the truth about Christ and his church as a covenant-keeping Christ and church.
4. Things can change. Even after many years, yes they can. “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us” (Ephesians 3:20). So, don’t make your faithfulness depend on your husband’s change, but do keep hoping and praying for it. Keep knocking on the door of heaven.
5. And the last encouragement I would give is this: Even if your marriage falls short of your hopes to the end (and what marriage doesn’t?), God will reward your faithfulness in the age to come a thousandfold. “Whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord” (Ephesians 6:8). Your husband and your friends may have no idea how many sacrifices you have made in order to love your husband as well as you can. But God knows every single one of them, and he says you will be repaid. All our trials are working for us an eternal weight of glory (2 Corinthians 4:17).