Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Love your Enemies - Matthew 5: 43-48

The six statements from Matthew 5: 21-48 are progressive. Each one depends on mastering the one before it. We can’t love our enemies without mastering anger, controlling lust, accepting the permanency of human relationships, behaving honestly and giving up the right of revenge. But none of this is possible unless we first surrender our hearts to God. Without His transforming power we can never achieve any of this.

Jesus is not demanding, but describing the kind of life that exists in the Kingdom of God. This is not a new set of regulations, but a picture of what we will do when Christ transforms our lives. Christians should not make any claims of being fully perfect or obedient. We are all works in progress. But this is how we act if we want to be like Him. An actor studies a role by looking at the person he is supposed to be. A Christian studies Christ and imitates Him. Without these statements, we can easily miss what Jesus considered to be morally important. 

The last and hardest statement is to love our enemies. In Matthew 5: 43-48, Jesus begins by telling us what we already know—that we should love friends and hate enemies. Well, duh!  We don’t have to be told this--we already do. Loving friends is a no-brainer. As far as hating enemies--that’s what enemies are for! Hating our enemies is the most natural thing in the world. In fact, an enemy means someone we hate, or hates us!

But what is “hate”? Hate is any negative emotional or physical action to someone. We may feel hate, or we might not feel anything at all to them--they could just be in our way. We may feel negatively towards someone, but not anger—it could be fear or disgust or just a general dislike. We might act on that hatred, or we may just keep it inside. But it is hatred, whether we speak or act, or don’t act.

Hatred is like a rat in the basement. We may not want it there, we may even deny it’s there, but it’s there, and won’t go away unless we deal with it.  

There are people who say, “I never hated anyone,” but I don’t believe it. Is there no one you would rather not be around? Is there no one you avoid? Is there no one that you are afraid of? The only way we can truthfully say we hate no one is by devaluing what hatred is. Enemies aren’t just someone we yell or shoot at, but someone we don’t want to be around.
We Christians are no better than non-Christians when it comes to hatred. We may express it differently, but we are still haters. Christians are often not yellers, but avoiders. How can we love our enemies without actually rubbing shoulders with our enemies?

Among the first places we avoid our enemies is in the church. God’s church doesn’t contain perfect people. If you’ve been in a church for long, you know that there are people in it that will make you furious. 

In America, we stress the voluntary nature of church membership and attendance. If there are people in the church who irritate us, or if the practice of the church doesn’t suit us, we just go somewhere else. Then we don’t have to put up with “ungodly” people at the church. 

Leaving is one way of dealing with disagreement, but it is not one that Jesus would endorse. Even when the temple leaders were trying to kill Him, he kept going to the temple. When we leave part of the Body of Christ over disagreements, we do just what Jesus says—we love our friends and by leaving hate our enemies. We fulfil the Old Testament, but not the Kingdom of God.

God has placed us in families, communities and churches, to be a witness, not just a participant. He didn’t call us to just bless those who bless us. Our enemies are sent to us to help us become Christlike. How can we imitate Jesus, who sat down to eat with Pharisees and scribes trying to kill him by avoiding our brother who just gets on our nerves?

I realize this is hard--that’s why we can’t do it without having already made some progress in mastering the other five things that Jesus said. Fortunately, God doesn’t judge us according to our ability to keep, but recognizes the difficulty in keeping it. Loving our enemies should only be attempted by those who want to be conformed to Christ’s image. 

But unless we love our enemies, we can never be like Jesus. The last line of Matthew 5 gives us the reason why. He says, “Be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.”  Perfection doesn’t mean being sinless—that would be impossible. It is a perfection of intention, not a perfection of action that we seek first. If our intention is pure, we will work out ways of following through in action. If Jesus loved His enemies, then we should be working to loving our enemies, too. 

So, how do we do it? First of all, let’s get something straight—loving our enemies doesn’t mean liking our enemies. Nor does it mean that our enemies will like us. They are still our enemies. We can’t change our emotions by simply wishing them away, or pretending that they don’t exist. We must readily acknowledge that there are some people who just irritate us. We can’t wish that irritation away. The more we try to pretend we do like them, the less we will like them.  But we can still love people we don’t like. We do this by our actions, not our thoughts. 

Here is what Jesus recommends we do if we want to learn to love our enemies. First, we pray for them. This doesn’t just pray for them once, but habitually pray for them. Make it part of our regular devotional life to pray for the people who irritate or oppose you.

Now there’s a right and a wrong way to pray for our enemies. Mostly, we do it the wrong way.

The wrong way is to praying judgmentally. That would be praying for our enemies to either drop dead or to change their ways. 

You don’t need to know the condition of your enemy’s heart--that’s God’s business. It’s wrong for us to judge our neighbor, even in prayer. Besides, it doesn’t help us while praying to remind ourselves of our enemy’s faults. There are times when it’s appropriate to pray for our enemies to change their hearts, and even sometimes that our enemies be removed. But these are not praying for our enemies. They are prayers for ourselves. Their intention is not to make our enemies happy, but to make us happy.

Praying for our enemies means for them-- for their health, happiness and prosperity. If you enemy is satisfied, he will have less will to fight about. Think of the things that he needs to be happy in life, and ask God to shower them upon him. Pray for his dreams to be fulfilled. Pray for him to know Jesus and that he enters the Kingdom of God. Let God decide, though what needs to be changed in his life. You aren’t called to judge, just pray.

Praying for our enemies the right way has a powerful effect on your life. It’s hard to wish a person ill if you are scouring your brain in prayer to think of ways they could be blessed. If you are wishing them well before God, God will change your heart, so that you no longer regard them as an enemy. When God blesses your enemy, you are blessed, too, because your prayers were part of it. 

In other Scriptures, Jesus tells us other things to do to love our enemies.  In Luke 6:47, He says “bless those who curse your, and to do good to those who hate you.” In addition to praying, find something good to do for him. Look for little things to show your support for your enemy, in spite of your disagreements. Everyone has personal needs, and we can help meet some of the needs even of people we dislike.

The world has an order of how the process of reconciliation should go. (1) Our enemy is persuaded we are right, and sees things our way.  (2) Recognizing that they were wrong, they apologize to us. (3) We begin to feel better about them. (4) They behave in a friendly manner towards us and start doing good things for us. Finally, (5) we start to pray for them, bless them and by doing good things for them. 

Of course, this rarely, if ever happens. When was the last time someone said to you, “I was wrong. You were right”? No wonder we have so many permanent divisions between people—we are waiting for apologies that never come!  

Instead, Jesus proposes another order—start at the end.

1. Do good things for them and pray for them.
2. They start to feel better about us.
3. We start to feel better about them. 
4. We mutually apologize
5. We may agree—or at least agree to disagree. We don’t have to get our issues resolved for us to recognize the basic humanity and unity we have in Christ. 

Third, we practice impartiality to our enemies. God doesn’t play favorites. When He sends rain, it falls on everyone. When the sun shines, it doesn’t just shine on good people. God gives life and joy to all. It isn’t our place to judge the worthiness of people before we let loose our blessings. We are seeking to be like God.  

In Africa, I taught in a Christian village that was being harassed by a witch doctor. The witch doctor had planted a grove of cashew trees on church property without permission. The church wanted to build a medical clinic on that same property. They hired a man to come out and cut down the trees. When the trees started falling, about thirty men with spears and machetes showed up shouting and cursing the Christians. The Christians did not fight back, but prayed for them overnight. While the crowd was still complaining, the Christian women showed up with box lunches for all the men who were threatening them with machetes. That really took the wind out of their demonstration!

But there is a deeper principle behind the command to love our enemies. It is the principle of mediated relationships. All our relationships must be seen first as a duty we owe to Christ. I don’t just love you—I love you in Christ. Christ is my first love, not you. If you don’t love me back, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that I have been called to express a love to you that is not first of all my own, but His.   As God is impartial, so I must also be impartial.

God has sent enemies into our lives for a purpose. It is not so we can destroy them, but so that we ourselves can be restored. By loving them, we discover what it is like to be Jesus. We are not Jesus—not yet—but we can learn to be more like him, when we pray for our enemies and bless them.  One by one, we can win over our enemies, by loving them into the Kingdom. 

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Turning the Other Cheek - Matthew 5: 38-42

In the book Lord of the Rings, A hobbit named Frodo receives a great magical ring that was used to enslave all the people of the earth. But the more he uses the ring, the more it destroys his soul. He discovers that he is not the lord of the ring—the ring wants to be the lord of him.

Frodo’s ring is a powerful symbol of what violence does to people. Tolkien learned about violence when he was a young soldier serving in France in World War 1. Violence destroys people from the inside out, dehumanizing them taking over their hearts. They do violence to others, touching off a cycle of violence that never stops.

Dr. Gary Slutkin is an epidemiologist for the World Health Organization, who has spent his life fighting epidemics of tuberculosis, AIDS and Ebola.  This led him to go into areas of the world where violence had taken over. Then Dr. Slutkin had a thought. What if we looked at violence as a contagious disease? He ran figures and computer models, and sure enough, he has been able to document that violence spreads in a community in the same way as contagious diseases. It enters a community in the hearts of a few people, and soon spreads to all the people around them. Eventually some of those people become carriers themselves, acting in violent ways that cause other people to become violent, too. 

The Bible doesn’t say that we should never be violent. Jesus is not advocating absolute pacifism.  He does, however give us a severe warning against letting violence take over our heart. 

The more we use violence the more it possesses us. Even when we use violence to restrain violence, we put ourselves in danger of succumbing to its power. It’s not the violence in the world that is the biggest challenge to our Christian lives, but the violence in our hearts.

What if we could be free from the influence of violence in our hearts? Think about it--if someone walked up to us unprovoked and hit us in the face, wouldn’t we want to hit back? But if we were free of violence in our hearts, we would not desire to hit back. If we did hit back, it would not be from desire for vengeance, but because we knew it was necessary to protect others. Even then, our response would be to use as little violence as possible. We could even turn the other cheek, and let them hit us again if we thought it would keep the peace. We would not react out of anger, but out of love.

If we were free of a vengeful, violent spirit, we would react differently. Jesus talked of how a Roman soldier could make people a slave for a day by forcing him to carry his forty-pound pack along the road for a mile. They would have to leave their business and walk miles in a direction they didn’t want to go. The desire to hurt that soldier would be natural. Violence is in everyone’s heart.

But without violence in our hearts, we not only could go one mile with him, we could go two.

Jesus also talked about a man who sues you for your cloak. Coats were necessary and expensive. If you had a nice coat, someone might claim it is theirs.  They could haul you into court and claim you gave them that coat. Our love of justice is offended by this. Why should they be entitled to our coat! It’s all we can do to keep from hitting them in the face!  Our first response is to take our case all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary, but not give them the coat on pure principle. But if our hearts are free of violence, then we could just give them the coat and let it go!  And oh, by the way, do you like my undercoat? Have it too, and welcome! We are out a coat, which is a temporary inconvenience, but we are free from violence, which could hinder us for years. 

In Matthew 5 Jesus uses six illustrations to contrast the Kingdom of God and the morality of the world. These illustrations are about anger, lust, divorce, truthfulness, violence, and love. The one about violence is probably the hardest for us to accept. (Preaching on this passage almost got me hit in the face on more than one occasion!)  But please understand, He is not setting up some new law that is impossible to keep. If we take this passage legalistically, we’ve missed the whole point of it. He is describing the behavior of people who live under God’s authority within the kingdom. They don’t have to do these things, they really want to do these things. Jesus isn’t making a law that we must always turn the other cheek. We still need policemen and soldiers, and there may be times when we must use violence to restrain the wicked. But when our hearts are changed by God’s grace, turning the other cheek will be as natural to us as revenge is for us today. In the We are free from desire for violence that we are able to turn the other cheek. God is in control, not violence, so we don’t need to strike back. 

Violence is literally the son of sin. After Eve and then Adam sinned they had Cain and Abel. Cain then committed the first act of violence. People have been using violence on each other ever since.  Human history is written in blood, and the restraint of violence has been a constant problem. 

Sometimes we must be violent to restrain violence. But once we do then we become violent ourselves. We’ve put on Frodo’s ring, and if we can’t take it off again, we become the dark lord.

Violence is like a demon. When we invite it inside, we need  more than restraint--we need an exorcism.

Violence always scars us. Soldiers returning home are more scarred by killing than they are by being shot at. Policemen are prone to breakdowns and PTSD when they have to draw their guns.  People rightly fear becoming monsters, if they are forced to do monstrous things to others. We need governments and kings, to do the acts necessary to restrain the violence. Jesus isn’t recommending turning the other cheek as necessary policy for kings.   That is why turning the other cheek will never work as government policy. He is talking about how people behave personally when freed from violent desires.

Before governments and laws, justice was carried out within tribes. Each family was responsible for avenging crimes committed against its members. Vengeance wasn’t a sin—it was a duty.  There was no policemen or soldiers to maintain justice for you. But if we avenge the death of one by striking another, then we may have to kill his family, too. Then what’s left of that family must avenge itself on us. So begins an endless cycle of retribution, that can go on for centuries.
When Moses led the Israelites into the desert, God established a law to govern tribes and nations. God gave the law not to saints, but to sinners. Part of that law was called the lex talionis—“an eye for an eye”.  It is found first in Exodus 21: 22-25,

 “If two men are fighting and they strike a pregnant woman and her children are born prematurely but there is no harm, he is certainly to be fined as the husband of the woman demands of him, and he will pay as the court decides. If there is harm, then you are to require life for life,  eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,  burn for burn, wound for wound, and bruise for bruise.”

This law was given to restrain violence, not continue it. Two men are fighting. The law didn’t forbid the fight. But while they are fighting, a pregnant woman gets in the way, and gets hurt, causing her to deliver prematurely. If the baby is healthy, the man who hit the woman is punished according to the wishes of her husband, with a fine determined by a judge. But if the child or anyone else is hurt, then the person who hurt them will forfeit eye for eye, tooth for tooth, and life for life. 

The punishment is proportional, and by the law, not by use. If the woman or the child lost an eye you couldn’t take both his eyes. If she lost a tooth, he owed a tooth, not all of his teeth. It was a way of restraining violence, and limiting the price of justice. 

You are not allowed to kill a person who breaks into your home, but to restrain him. You can’t kill a man who only steals your bicycle. You can only demand proportionate justice. You can’t allow violence to go wild in your life. 

In the kingdom of men, justice is meted out by the government. In the kingdom of God, justice is God’s concern, not ours. You can’t just take it for yourself, and be in God’s kingdom. Being a citizen of the Kingdom of God is more binding upon you than being a citizen of the United States. God is our first allegiance. 

Will God avenge the wrongs committed against His people? Absolutely! That’s the point of the book of Revelation. God will punish the people who give in to violence.  

Consider what happened to those who crucified Jesus. Judas hanged himself. Pontius Pilate committed suicide in the reign of Caligula after having been stripped of all he owned and recalled from Israel in disgrace. Herod was also stripped of all his possessions and died in exile. Annas, the high priest was deposed from office, his son Caiaphas died about the same time. Some scholars believe that Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus was a veiled reference to Annas being in hell. A generation after Christ’s crucifixion, the Jewish leaders were expelled from their homeland for 1900 years. 

God’s vengeance is real, and more than any person could bring.

Consider what we’ve seen in our day. Hitler committed suicide in a bunker. Mussolini was shot by his own people. Saddam Hussein was hanged.  Ben Laden was shot in his home and his body dumped in the ocean. God will bring vengeance. We can leave it to Him.

Children seem to naturally be violent. But parents teach their children that some things are not worth fighting over. 
God isn’t saying don’t feel hurt when someone hurts you. He is saying, “Give that anger to me. I will take care of it.”  Don’t strike back, because He will do it for you. We as individuals are not the instruments of God’s justice. 

Jesus can help us master our violence, and forgive those who hurt us. He offers a cure for violence addiction. It is called “grace”. As Jesus showed grace to us, so we should show grace to others. He wants us to show the world that with Christ’s help, we can set violence aside, set our rights aside, and get on to bigger and better things.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Lies and Double Lies - Matthew 5: 33-37

An American tourist bought a thousand-dollar Persian rug from an Arab trader in an Israeli shop.  The Arab promised to ship it to America if he paid shipping and handling in cash. They sealed the deal with a handshake.  There was no receipt, only a bill of sale for customs purposes.  When he got back home, the rug was there at his doorstep. 

In our culture, this would be a stupid thing to do. There’s no reason this Arab merchant couldn’t just pocket the money and forget the rug.  But he didn’t. He kept his word and shipped the rug.

That Arab lived in a different world from ours. In his culture, God judged liars. He and his fellow countrymen carried out their business every day on their word.  If he cheated a stranger, no one would trust him again.  It never occurred to him to cheat a stranger, or to be anything less than honest.

I am not suggesting that we should sell thousand dollar rugs in our country on a handshake—I’m just bemoaning the fact that we can’t.  Our culture too dishonest for that level of trust, so we must sign contracts for everything.  Our world is in bondage to liars. 

This Arab trader came from a tradition  that required he cultivate a reputation for honesty. Without his reputation, he couldn’t make a living. 

Consider how  we assure honesty in America.   Remember the last time you bought a car, checked into a hospital, or did your taxes?  Do you remember having to practically sign your life away to trade cars?  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live in a society where paperwork is unnecessary to assure honesty-- where we could just shake hands and make a deal?  Something inside us tells says this is the way it should be, living together in a world of trust.

The Kingdom of God, it is totally possible to live in trust.  When God is the head, people tell the truth.

Everyone has some horror story of being stymied by paperwork and beaurocracy.  We are all caught up in a system that must assume that everyone is lying. There’s always one more form to fill out, one more step to take, one more affidavit to sign, one more report or request to write, until our culture strangles itself on its own red tape. Paperwork increases when trust decreases.  

But written assurances comes to nothing in the end.  Instead of guaranteeing the truth, they  guarantee lies. When we rely on written assurances,  we teach people that truth doesn’t count unless it is in writing. If it’s not on paper, we don’t have to tell the truth. 

But in the Kingdom of God, people tell the truth and believe the truth, because they trust God.  God is the mediator and assurer of all transactions between ourselves and others in God’s kingdom.

Before we get to talking about the truth, let’s talk about lies.  In our world we have lies, double lies, and triple lies.
Simple lies are when people deliberately deceive others.  Deliberately is a key word. If we are wrongly mistaken, we are not lying. Lying is a matter of the heart, not the lips.  That’s why we must be careful before calling someone a liar.

People lie all the time.  In the 1950’s an American named John Noble, lived for more than two years in Stalinist Russia.  He wrote that the most prominent feature of Soviet society was lying. The government lied to the people, and the people lied to their government. Everyone lied to everyone else. In such a society, laws didn’t mean a thing.  The Soviet  constitution assured the people they had all kinds of personal freedom—but it was a lie. o one believed anything the government said. 

Noble stated that he believed the reason for this culture of lying was official atheism. Without God to assure moral honesty, there was no reason to tell the truth.  God holds us accountable to tell the truth and to keep our word. 

In Jesus’ day, there were plenty of liars, too.  Society needed some way of assuring people were honest.  They had contracts and paperwork, but not as much as we do.  So, they depended upon people’s belief to keep them honest.  People were kept honest by swearing oaths.  If you swore an oath on God, then God would hold you accountable. 

Sometimes, they would swear that some catastrophe would befall them if they broke their word.  It worked the same way as a notarized contract today.  As long as people believe their God is real, they must obey it.

This prevented people from telling lies.  But then, there were double lies.  If you swear on something you didn’t believe, you not only lied, but you lied about what you believed in. This was a double lie—to claim you have a God that you don’t have.

It does no good to say “I swear to God” if you didn’t believe in God!  Unless you actually believe in God, there’s no point in saying it.   The swearing of the irreligious is a double lie—a lie before a God that they don’t believe in.    
Eventually, these oaths became jokes—mere swear words. Swearing is not the sign of an honest person, but a dishonest one.  It is a sign of a double-liar, not a teller of truth.

Our a society that does not fear God,  people swear on the government.  We require notarized contracts, endless signatures,  all to assure people are telling the truth. They may not fear God,  but they fear laws and lawyers.  A godliness goes down, bureaucracy and paperwork go up. There are no social bonds that keep people honest other than the fear of being caught.

 Just be honest, Jesus says.  Don’t swear by anything, just tell the truth. 

We have all lied at some time--sometimes we even think it’s a morally justified.  Are there times when a person a person must lie?  If there are, they are very few.  Let’s talk about reasons people lie.

We lie to gain an advantage over others. We lie to get more money, a better house, or a better job. If we are really in the Kingdom, we don’t have to do this. God is our Father.  We have what God has.  We live under His rule, and He is generous.  When we don’t have to lie to gain when we already have all we need.

We lie for attention. There’s a mental condition called Munchausen’s Syndrome, where chronically and constantly  lie for attention.  Such people are pitiful, not to mention untrustworthy. But most of us have lied for attention at some time. We exaggerate our accomplishments or hide our faults to keep a sfrom being embarrassed.  But if we are really submitted to God,  we do not need the attention of others—God is sufficient for us.

We lie for self-defense. The problem with defensive lying it is us taking the place of God.   sometimes we need punishment.  We rely upon lies to protect us, instead of God.  If we are attacked by a burglar, what is the wisest course. To go wrestle the burglar, or call the police?   We call the police,  because we are under their jurisdiction.  They are trained to fight with burglars;  we are not.  If we are attacked by people,  what is the better course—lying to defend ourselves or calling upon God?  To live in the kingdom of God is to live in His jurisdiction. Surely He can be trusted to defend us!

We tell “little white lies” to smooth over situations and keep from hurting feelings. The problem with little white lies or withheld information is not that we are denying God, but that we are playing God. It is a way of assuming that we know what is best for the person we are deceiving.  But if we withhold information or lie about difficult situations to spare a person’s feelings, then the next time we are in a similar situation they will not trust whatever we tell them. We have ruined our reputation for honesty.

Beware of keeping too many secrets from those we love.  It has been said that secrets are to relationships what plaque is to arteries.  If we hold too many secrets, it will clog all communication, and our relationships will break down.  Keep our paths of communication clear with openness and honesty.

Let me tell you a secret—we all lie.  Honesty is something we all must work on, for God’s sake. 
Let me tell you about the most dishonest man I know.   (I’ll call him “Fred”, not his real name.)  He is strong and genuine believer, always joking and pleasant.  Everyone liked him.  But underneath that happy exterior, he was a deeply troubled man.  Financially, he was having deep problems, but he pretended he wasn’t.  For years he went on pretending,  and hurting,  but inside he was in turmoil.

Then he was given the job as church treasurer.  The church had a half-million dollar budget.  Fred couldn’t pay his bills, but he was paying bills at church with money to spare.

So quietly, Fred began to borrow from the church to pay his bills. He intended to pay it back, but soon he was in so deep he couldn’t. Without accountability, he became a their.

This went on for almost thirty years.  He essentially split himself into two people—the seemingly sincere Christian and the embezzler, who by the end had taken tens of thousands of dollars from the church.  It was a shock to everyone who knew him when he was finally caught.

How could he live with himself—being a Christian and stealing from the church?  He did it by doing to himself what he did to everyone else—by lying to himself, like he did to others. One day he was stealing, the next day he was pretending to himself that he was right with God.  This went on until his lies caught up with him. 

We can’t lie to others and to God, and still be honest to ourselves. When we lie, we lie to everyone.

There is only one cure for self-deceit—confession.  We must admit to having a problem with lying. The apostle John calls “walking in darkness” telling the truth is “walking in the light.”

John says this  “If we walk in the light as He is in the light,  we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin.”  Lies break relationships.  Truth restores them.

In a world of lies,  we must protect ourselves, but we don’t have to be part of the lying. Others may not be trustworthy, but we should be utterly trustworthy, so when we give our word, we mean it, and we keep it.    

Monday, May 8, 2017

Jesus on Marriage and Divorce - Matthew 5: 31-32

Today we look at the third of the six statements where Jesus contradicts the accepted “morality” of His day. Here He deals with relationships by focusing on marriage and divorce, but His words are not just about divorce, but every relationship in life. 

To this, we should look at the marriage customs of Jesus’ day. Parents chose their child’s life partner. This is still practiced in many countries, and most of those arranged marriages are mostly happier than ones where the children chose their own. If the parents love their children, they look out for their best interest. They find spouses who fit their personality, and take the child’s wishes into consideration. The whole system depends on commitment and trust between parent and child.

When a proper groom was chosen, the parents gave him a dowry, which was a promise to him of marriage. The groom gave the bride a monetary gift, usually in the form of a ring. Both gifts were intended to display trust and commitment.  

The marriage had three stages, just like it does today. First there was the ring, or gift. Then there was the contract, or ceremony. Then there was the consummation, or honeymoon. Any of these three stages constituted legal marriage. If the groom slept with the bride first he was considered married to her. The lifetime commitment was implied in sexual union. They were one flesh.  

The system worked because it depended on trust and commitment. Children trusted their parents to make a good choice; husbands trusted and committed to their wives. These outer commitments were built on inner commitments of love and respect. The idea of couples being “incompatible” never came up, because marriage wasn’t based on compatibility, but trust and commitment. A man gave his word to stay with a woman, and as a gentleman, he kept his word.  Society was based on personal relationships of trust and commitment. People loved each other and kept their promises. No laws could ever replace that. If the love and commitment are not there, no one will obey anything. 

This is still true. If people don’t trust the government, society falls apart. If government leaders don’t respect the people, society falls apart.  Society depends not on people’s outer actions, but on their inner hearts. 

But even in the old days, things didn’t always work out. Sometimes parents married off their daughters to the wrong man. Husbands broke trust with their wives. When that happened, divorce was necessary and unavoidable.

In Jesus’ day, Israel practiced “one way no fault” divorce. If a woman wanted a divorce, she had to give a good reason and be able to prove it. Even then, society blamed the woman. If a man wanted a divorce, though, he needed no reason. 

The Talmud specifically states that a man may divorce his wife if she burns his dinner, or if he finds another woman more attractive. The Talmud also states that if a woman is proven to commit adultery, then the man must divorce her even if he would be inclined to forgive. Adultery was a stoning offense—for the woman, not the man. The sexism was tremendous. 
We can appreciate how unfair this was to the woman. A woman had better learn to cook, or her husband can divorce her! She had better not get fat or unattractive, or her husband could dump her!

 But we live in “enlightened” times. How we have changed today! We have equalized marriage by giving women the same rights as men. While in Israel men were free to dump their wives, in America, women are equally free to dump their husbands.  Women have more leverage in relationships than before, more power. Because of this extra leverage we now have a 50-60% divorce rate. Women have freedom. Women have power. But none of us have trust, security or commitment.

Marriage is intended to be a life-long state.  There are only three conditions which allow divorce, and those are infidelity, abandonment, and abuse.   Malachi 2: 13-16  deals with this.    

This is another thing you do: you flood the altar of the Lord with tears, weeping and wailing because he no longer pays attention to your offering nor takes pleasure in it from your hand. Yet you ask, ‘For what reason?’ Because the Lord acts as a witness between you and the wife of your youth, because you were unfaithful to her, your partner, the wife of your covenant. Did he not make them one? And the vestige of the spirit remains in him. And why did he make them one? He was seeking godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and don’t be unfaithful to the wife of your youth.
“Indeed, the Lord God of Israel says that he hates divorce, along with the one who conceals his violence by outward appearances, says the Lord of the Heavenly Armies. “So guard yourselves carefully, and don’t be unfaithful.”

God hates divorce but if a person cheats, or commits domestic violence, ­God hates that just as much. Malachi equates infidelity, domestic violence, and divorce as all bad. In God’s eyes, seeking a divorce for other reasons is tantamount to adultery and abuse.

Keep in mind, Malachi said this to a nation which outwardly followed God. Divorce, adultery and abuse aren’t just practiced by non-believers, but also by believers. Some evidence suggest that there is actually more physical abuse among Christians than among non-Christians. Don’t think that the covenant of marriage binds a wife to endure a brutal marriage where her husband treats her as a punching bag--it does not. Violence and adultery are divorceable offenses.  

But Malachi also equates divorce with domestic violence. Divorce is a form of warfare. It isn’t just breaking a vow, but since we come together as one flesh, its amputation. “Friendly” divorces are a myth. Like any other war, both sides bleed. People may become friends after divorce, (I hope they do), but divorce is still ugly and painful to both parties, and even uglier if children are involved.

If divorce is so ugly, then why is there so much of it? 

Jesus says it is because our hearts are hard. But to whom are our hearts hard? A person that is “hard-hearted” is not that way to everyone. Divorce happens not when we are hard to each other, but when we are hard to God.

Don’t ask why people should divorce--ask why people stay married. In Jesus’ day, most people stayed married for life. Today they don’t. The difference is this—they relied on trust and commitment, mostly to God. Their marriage trust was based on the assumption that they should trust God.

If marriage isn’t about God, then I have no problem with divorce. But if we have committed to the Kingdom of God, then marriage is a way of living out that commitment. 

The first vows in a Christian marriage is made to God. You pledge to God to support and live with one person. Really, you aren’t pledging to each other, but to God. When you fall in love, you are entering into a romance. When you get married, you are signing on to a one-sided ministry. Marriage isn’t just about loving each other or meeting needs. It’s an oath to God. You take on a congregation of one person, to honor, love and to accept above all else, except God. Before you marry, make sure you want it. Ask God to give you the strength to fulfill that holy promise. Take God out of marriage, that oath is empty. If you put Him in it, then your oath is to Him, not to your spouse.

In the God’s kingdom, all things are done for God’s glory. Our first relationship is to Him, it is to Him we look to have our needs met. God will provide the support that our spouses will not. Changing spouses will not meet our needs if God doesn’t, because He is the source of all our support. Every decision we make in life is really a question of whether we are doing what God wants. All our relationships are for God’s sake, not out own. We enter them for His sake.

I will not say any of this is easy—it is not. I have known many Christians who chafe at this, who feel their spouse is a “ball and chain” around their neck. But when we feel this, we are looking at it wrong. It’s not the spouse that is the ball and chain. It is our feelings. The only way that we can live up to the standards our Lord sets down is to be changed by God’s Spirit from the inside out. God doesn’t trap us with laws we cannot keep. He frees us to obedience by changing our inside desires. Christ can set us from those trapped feelings which come when our hearts desire what we cannot have. 

Many Christians live with a feeling of being trapped—trapped in jobs, trapped in addictions, and even trapped in monogamy. But Christ can change the desires of our hearts so we can enjoy the righteous path. He can make us appreciate the right way, and throw off the wrong way of sin.

This same principle applies to all relationships—friendships, neighbors, children, parents, churches, even society. We can stay where you are, with the commitments we have for as long we live, and still be free in our hearts. Society depends upon trust, and trust depends on being under God. We can love our country, even when our country is wrong. But I can only do it if I love God more. No legal or moral threats, punishments or rewards are strong enough to hold people together when we don’t believe that God is in it. 

It is not my intention to pass judgment on any who have endured the agony of divorce. Nor is it my intention for any to view these words in a legalistic or binding way. Jesus’ point in the Sermon on the Mount is not to set up a new law, but to show by example how people think whose minds are renewed by grace. If we seek God, then we won’t be seeking to break our vows to God or to another, but to follow a path of love. 

Instead, it is my hope for those who may be struggling with difficulties to consider that more is at stake than your personal feelings of comfort. Stay married for as long as you can. Work out your differences. Seek counseling. Swallow your pride.  The single greatest motivator to stay together is not how you feel about each other, but how you feel about a covenant you made before God.  f God is first in both your lives, then no power on earth or in heaven  can ever tear you apart.