MDR: How much misery? (First Draft)

I get emails —


I have done some counseling with people in the church. One brother in his 60’s told me recently that he had been very unhappy and even miserable in his married life for over 35 years. They stayed married but now his grown children are fairly miserable and depressed themselves. This man told me he wonders if he will go to heaven because he was such a bad father (not abusive or a drunkard, just ineffectual and unhappy). Have we (Christian teachers) led people to believe they would be better off being miserable for 40 years than getting a divorce and going to hell?

I am so blessed to be with someone I could love for many years. But not everyone is so fortunate. Is it right for me to tell someone less fortunate you must remain in this  wretched, pathetic marriage for the rest of your life because you made a bad decision when you were a 19 year old?  In fact, I haven’t said that , but that is what most church of Christ people believe and if a preacher told them differently it would start a firestorm of trouble.

I usually say something like, “knowing that God wants you to be faithful and happy, what do you need to do for that to happen?” Any further feedback or advice from scripture you or your readers can give me?

Asking the right questions

For those new to the blog, I need to mention my ebook posted online But If You Do Marry … and the earlier series on divorce called “MDR.” We’ve covered the theology of divorce and remarriage extensively here, and so I hesitated to post the question — not because it’s not a good question but because I know it’ll be hard to keep the discussion on task. You see, there are at least three ways this could go —

Question 1 — is divorce for some reason other than fornication ever permissible?

Question 2 — for an impermissible divorce, is remarriage permitted?

Question 3 — how does the church deal with someone who has impermissibly divorced? or impermissible remarried?

Those are kind of the usual questions. But in this case, only Question 1 is on the table. And I’m thinking that may not even be the right question. Maybe we should instead ask —

Question 4 — how important is my happiness in the grand scheme of things? And not much gets written on that one.

One wrong answer

And while I struggle to find a good answer, I’m pretty confident that some answers are wrong.

We dare not recommend to someone that he sin (by divorcing or otherwise) just because forgiveness or remarriage or church fellowship is possible. That’s rebellion. It’s a very dangerous path. It would be the height of irresponsibility to say: “Go ahead and commit this sin. God will forgive you.” That is exactly the sin that Hebrews warns us against —

(Heb 12:15-16 ESV) 15 See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled;  16 that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal.

The root of bitterness is found in —

(Deu 29:18-20 ESV)  18 Beware lest there be among you a man or woman or clan or tribe whose heart is turning away today from the LORD our God to go and serve the gods of those nations. Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit, 19 one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.’ This will lead to the sweeping away of moist and dry alike.  20 The LORD will not be willing to forgive him, but rather the anger of the LORD and his jealousy will smoke against that man, and the curses written in this book will settle upon him, and the LORD will blot out his name from under heaven.

(Compare Heb 10:26-27.) So that line of reasoning is just not available to us. That doesn’t mean it’s our place to invoke God’s judgment on those who’ve traveled down this path. It’s not. But we can certainly not recommend such a course of action.

What about a legal separation?

But does God allow divorce on other grounds? Well, as I considered at some length in the book and earlier series, the “putting away” that ends a marriage is not the filing of the divorce petition in court — a practice foreign to First Century thought. The “divorce” is the ending of the marriage, which could happen by abandonment or other serious breach of the marriage covenant.

Therefore, a legal separation would be, in the eyes of the New Testament writers, a divorce. It’s not the legal status of the spouses that matters so much as how they treat each other and their relationship. A legal separation is simply a divorce by another name except that the state won’t allow remarriage. Being legally married while living apart as though single is not a marriage. Not having sex with someone not your spouse is hardly sufficient for a marriage. I mean, the goal here isn’t celibacy but for the husband and wife to be “one flesh” and united.

Therefore, the marriage may well have already been ended by one spouse or the other long before the divorce papers are filed in the courthouse. And, therefore, if it’s a sin to divorce your spouse in a given situation, it would be sin to be legally separated in that situation, too.


Let’s assume for purposes of this discussion, however, that the spouses simply can’t stand each other. They honor their marital obligations to one another. The husband supports his wife. They don’t deny sexual relations. They do the usual husband-and-wife things. They just detest one another. Does God intend that we be miserable? And doesn’t that misery have an impact on the children and future generations, perhaps leading to another several generations of dysfunctional marriages?

Of course, in the First Century, marriages were arranged. The idea of building a marriage on romantic love and having a soul-mate would have been quite foreign to most of Jesus’ audience. It’s not that no one ever made their own match, but normally the spouses were selected by the parents, and family loyalty and honor were much more important than individual autonomy or even happiness. Surely, therefore, there were countless miserable marriages!

I mean, the modern, working theory of marriage is all about compatibility — and it’s unlikely that the parents did that well selecting mates for their children. I know that the girls my parents wanted me to date were not the ones I wanted to date. And I’m sure my kids feel that same way about my taste in potential girlfriends! I doubt that First Century parents were any better at it that we’d be today.

Then again, many lousy marriages would be avoided if the kids would listen to their parents! I think parents are pretty good at seeing losers and mistakes. We’re not so good at finding ideal matches.

So we have to read the New Testament in light of First Century culture and practices. And I’m very fortunate to have married well. I know plenty of people who didn’t do so well — and it would be hard to exaggerate just how terrible life can be with a bad choice of spouse.

Therefore, if you were approached by a beloved friend who is miserable in his or her marriage, and yet the spouses aren’t guilty of any heinous sins against the other, what would you recommend? What’s the best counsel we can give?


I’m sure the readers will remember —

(1Pe 3:1-2 ESV) Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, 2 when they see your respectful and pure conduct.

Peter taught Christian women to remain married to their unbelieving husbands in hopes of saving them. And a marriage between a believer and an unbeliever can be a very difficult one. Imagine what it would have been like in pagan society! Do the children worship the God of the Jews or Apollo? Do they suffer persecution or become good citizens who honor the gods of the city? It would likely have been much tougher then than it is today in the US. It would be not unlike the wife of a Muslim converting to Christianity today. And yet Peter says the chance to convert the husband requires the wife to remain married.

Paul says much the same thing in 1 Cor 7 —

(1Co 7:12-17 ESV) 12 To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her.  13 If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him.  14 For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.  15 But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace.  16 For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?  17 Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches.

By the way, “separates” should not be considered the equivalent of a modern legal separation. No such legal process existed in the First Century. Rather, the way a Greek man divorced his wife was by kicking her out of the house or by leaving, announcing the divorce in the presence of witnesses.

The strking thing about these passages is the flow of thought. It’s all about the kingdom — how to save your spouse — not how to be happy. But what if the spouse is already saved but a terrible husband?

Modern examples

Consider a spouse who becomes paranoid schizophrenic after the marriage and refuses to take medication (paranoid people don’t trust their doctors!) The condition is permanent.

Consider a spouse who is in a persistent vegetative state — entirely unresponsive to external stimuli and kept alive on machines because her parents won’t allow her to die. She might stay on the machines for decades before “dying.”

Consider the spouse who becomes increasingly self-absorbed and shows no love for his wife and children. He doesn’t cheat on his wife; he pays for the mortgage and household expenses. But he has no interest in his family. Medical tests show no problems. He’s just a jerk.

Assume both spouses are otherwise good, Bible-toting Christians. What advice do you give?

(Oh, and you can’t cite the Book of Common Prayer as authority here, even though that’s where we get our wedding vows from.)

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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8 Responses to MDR: How much misery? (First Draft)

  1. Matt says:

    Although I definetly agree with you that we should never advise someone to sin, I wonder if this is a case in which the purpose of the command must be considered.

    Is it Jesus' purpose in giving this teaching to keep people trapped it pathetic, miserable marriages?

    I married very well but my family is currently dealing with a divorce (in which neither spouse was involved in fornication) and I can't see how God would want the two to stay together. I can see how Jesus' teaching should prevent entering divorce casually (which seems to be His purpose in giving it) but it doesn't seem that His purpose was to keep people trapped in bad marriages.

    Wouldn't it be a distorted type of New Testament legalism to say that a couple "must" stay together because their is a command that forbids them to part?

    It seems very Old Covenant and anti-Jesus to keep commands just because they are written when it seems they were given for an entirely different purpose. I think Jesus (in His whole ministry) was trying to get us to step away from keeping commands and step toward true righteousness. This may just be a case where keeping a command (which is righteous when kept for the right purpose) doesn't lead to righteousness when kept for the wrong purpose. Am I on the right track?

  2. abasnar says:

    Is it Jesus’ purpose in giving this teaching to keep people trapped it pathetic, miserable marriages?

    Was Jesus blind to the realities of life?
    Wasn't He confronted with divorces for any reason (Mt 19:3)?
    Then why didn't He present a "balanced" view of honorable exits from misery?

    Maybe, because mariage is also a covenant that is to be observed in good days and in bad days.

    Psa 15:1 A Psalm of David. O LORD, who shall sojourn in your tent? Who shall dwell on your holy hill?
    Psa 15:2 He who walks blamelessly and does what is right and speaks truth in his heart;
    Psa 15:3 who does not slander with his tongue and does no evil to his neighbor, nor takes up a reproach against his friend;
    Psa 15:4 in whose eyes a vile person is despised, but who honors those who fear the LORD; who swears to his own hurt and does not change;
    Psa 15:5 who does not put out his money at interest and does not take a bribe against the innocent. He who does these things shall never be moved.

    Life sometimes is tough – and marriage is not always happy. It can become a burden and a test of faith we are called to endure. What would the saints mentioned in the following verses answer thos who seek an easy way out of "misery"?

    Heb 11:36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.
    Heb 11:37 They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated–
    Heb 11:38 of whom the world was not worthy–wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.


  3. Alan S says:


    I do not think you could have been more right! When I began the blog, I was afraid you would focus on question #1 (can he divorce?), but was so happy to see you introduce and deal with question #4 (is his happiness the most important thing?). In our adult Bible class this quarter, we have been studying from Gary Thomas' book, Sacred Marriage. I highly recommend it!

    The theme of the book is this: God designed marriage to make us holy, not happy. We have it all wrong (in this country especially). We see the purpose of our mates to make us happy. And if we can't be happy with one person, we divorce them and find someone else who will make us happy.

    This past week, we spent time in chapter 8 dealing with marriage and struggle (or suffering). We teach as Christians the value of struggle and adversity. In James 1:2-4, James says to "consider it pure joy" when we encounter "trials of many kinds". Why? Because difficulties serve a spiritual benefit. Paul said in 2 Corinthians 12:10 that he "delights" in "hardships" and "difficulties". Why? Because difficulties make us more aware of our need for God.

    We tend to read passages like these and talk about them and say we agree with what the writers are saying, but as soon as class is over, what do most of our prayers sound like? "God, please take away all my problems, make me comfortable, make life easy." That ungodly way of thinking carries over into the way we think about marriage.

    What would be my advice to such a man trapped in an "unhappy" marriage? Begin to see what God is teaching you. View the marriage as a spiritual training ground rather than a garden designed to grow your personal happiness. Jay, if we could shift this way of thinking, what a difference we as Christians could make in this world!

    Thanks for pointing people in the right direction.

  4. Alan says:

    Alexander beat me to it: Psalm 15:1-5.

    The couple who is going through all the right motions but "can't stand each other" has a real problem, one that causes misery. They need a solution.

    Divorce is not the solution.

    I think the solution has two parts. (disclaimer: I am taking this from the Dynamic Marriage materials from Family Dynamics). First, each partner needs to understand what are the things they do which irritate their spouse, and they need to stop. Eliminate the "love busters" as DM would say. Then, learn what your spouse's greatest emotional needs are, and find ways to keep them fully met. If your spouse is getting his/her emotional needs met, they won't be miserable. If both parties are doing that, nobody will be miserable.

    In cases where the couple is contemplating divorce, professional intervention may be necessary. But the solution is the same: stop hurting your spouse, and start blessing them. Get help if you need it.

  5. I mentor marriages. Some happy. Some less so.

    Love and happiness in marriage can be restored, if a couple wants to restore it. The largest obstacle is selfishness and pride. I've witnessed it.

    But I also know that people are pig-headed and refuse to love others, including their spouse, the way Jesus loves them.

    Divorce is a manifestation of the sin, not the real core issue. The core issue is failing to follow Jesus' model for love. Divorce is the observable manifestation of that sin.

    Divorce is no more unforgivable than hating your neighbor is unforgivable. And it can be avoided only by focusing on loving your spouse.

    It seems to me, in the American culture, we've placed friendship above unconditional love, as the basis for relationships. That is, I'll be your friend, your spouse, etc, so long as you treat me as well or better than I treat you. It is reciprocal care.

    However, agape, the love Jesus calls us to requires that we give ourselves to someone else, for their good, without expecting or requiring anything in return.

    That is a standard we will never live up to, but one we should constantly, every moment, every day, with every person, we should aspire to.

    When I perform wedding ceremonies, I often note that only in the marriage relationship do eros, phileo and agape all come together to make the relationship truly unique in our experience.

    When you take any one of those three out of the marriage relationship, the marriage is at some risk of survival.

  6. Dan H. says:

    David, I like what you said about the three kinds of love coming together in marriage. ….very thoughtful…..

    I also like the emphasis on the spiritual well being of each person . Somehow even unhappy couples need to figure out how their marriage is going to glorify God, edify those around them and build up their family. If there is dedicated, faithful submission to God; can some form of contentment be far behind?

  7. Guy says:


    i was in a miserable marriage. i didn't want the divorce. She did. But i was just as miserable as she was. i aimed to stay together because i vowed that i would. And i wanted my son to have his parents together; it was crystal clear that's what he wanted too. But i didn't want to be miserable, and i knew the marriage would likely never be ideal or great or even stable for that matter–i'd likely never have what i really wanted out of a marriage; but it's not about me having things the way i prefer. God never said i was entitled to get things the way i want.

    "Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church"–did Jesus bow out when things seemed horrible and dark and dreary? Couldn't someone have asked, "C'mon–does God really intend for Jesus to be so unhappy and have to deal with such bad circumstances all the time just to keep to God's mission?"

    The point is, Jesus wasn't miserable. He proved that we are not slaves to our circumstances. You can have joy even when things are hard and not to your liking. You might not be happy, but you can have joy. Despite having flaky friends, bitter enemies, death threats, and the weight of the fate of the world on His shoulder, Jesus remained joyful and content. We have far more control over our attitude and demeanor than we want to admit (because if we admitted it, then we couldn't blame our circumstances anymore).

    Suffering is inevitable. Misery is a choice. You can choose to get glad in the same pants you got mad in.


  8. Jay Guin says:


    I labeled the post "First Draft" because I'm not at all sure of my conclusions. But if we create an exception to the teachings on divorce for miserable marriages, then we've essentially made divorce no longer a sin at all — because EVERY divorce is about an effort to become more happy. So I just can't persuade myself that Jesus or the apostles intended these passages to be understood as creating an exception for unhappy marriages. Indeed, that seems to be the very position that Jesus contracted in Matt 19.

    On the other hand, I'm not willing to go with the position of some that because marriage is a covenant and because God never broke his covenant with Israel, regardless of Israel's sinfulness, we can't end our marriage covenants regardless of the sinfulness of our spouses. By that logic, even adultery is not grounds for divorce, as God often accused Israel of immorality and refused to divorce them.

    And, of course, while God honored his covenant with a remnant, he didn't save all Israelites. And I can't imagine how that principle would apply in marriage except to say that the same sorts of things that could cost me my salvation should cost me my marriage — deliberately continuing to sin against the marriage, a lack of faith/faithfulness to my spouse, perhaps even demanding that my spouse earn my love — each being parallel to our individual relationship with God — which is a covenant relationship applied at the individual level. Hmmm … I'll have to think on that one.

    Time to write a second draft …

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