Don had been married thirty years to the wife of his youth. Together they raised three children, built two careers, and seemed headed for late-life contentment. Suddenly Don’s wife announced, “I don’t love you. This marriage has been a mistake from the beginning. I want a divorce.”
Janice had been married 19 years when her husband left her without explanation. Within weeks, he abandoned his job, relocated, and refuses to speak to his wife and children. As a stay-at-home mother, she is without financial support and terrified for her future. Her husband has “left the grid” and refuses to respond.
Both couples profess Christ and previously demonstrated evidence of salvation and fruit within their respective homes. Regrettably these stories are far too common within God’s Church, and the Body is facing an onslaught of spousal abandonment. There is increasing need for biblical counsel on this topic and we must examine God’s Word on the matter.
As a biblical counselor I have repeatedly heard that “abandonment” is biblical grounds for divorce. I have heard it from pastors, leaders, and individuals who have been deserted. But does Scripture support this claim. Jesus said:
“It was said, ‘WHOEVER SENDS HIS WIFE AWAY, LET HIM GIVE HER A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE ‘; but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matt 5:31-32).
Jesus never wavered on this point. No other reference to an acceptable divorce appears in Scripture. And even the matter of sexual immorality is to first be addressed under the biblical themes of forgiveness, reconciliation, and obedience to the admonition that God hates divorce (Mal 2:16).
Often the victim of abandonment will have no choice. The spouse who leaves may initiate a divorce and refuse reconciliation. On this point, the rejected spouse has little recourse. Yet too frequently, the abandonment results in a prolonged separation, with the absent spouse taking no steps toward a permanent ending. What then should be our counsel?
Many times abandoned spouses are encouraged to initiate divorce, wrongly claiming biblical absolution for doing so. Other times counselors rely on the wisdom of compassion, citing the suffering and hardship of the one left alone. And finally, counselors justify their advice to divorce with secular reasoning such as the need for financial support, personal rights, and individual protection. But counselors must be cautious in setting misplaced sympathy, legal rights, and human judgment ahead of God’s standard.
The only biblical exception noted on the issue of abandonment deals with the departure of unbelievers. If only one of the partners is a Christian, he/she must remain with the unbeliever as long as he/she wishes to stay. However, Paul wrote:
Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace (1 Cor 7:15).
Obviously this release is not given to a marriage that is equally bound together (2 Cor 6:14). In this case the admonition of Christ is clear:
“So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” (Matt 19:6).
God never ordains marital separation because it requires the cutting of flesh for the union to be severed. Regarding the division of marriage, Scripture states:
“For the Lord God of Israel says
That He hates divorce,
For it covers one’s garment with violence” (Mal 2:16, NKJV).
“Violence” is God’s description of divorce. It is a cutting and murderous act that the Christian must avoid at all cost. And even when one spouse is injured and vulnerable when abandoned, he/she must not advance the violence by terminating the union.
Clearly this path of endurance is hard, and even unjust. Yet our counsel must be God’s counsel…no matter the intensity of our empathy and the secular measurement of fairness. God calls the believer to go far beyond the perseverance of the world and to do the unexpected. Peter wrote:
For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a person bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly (1 Pet 2:19).
Abandonment is indeed unjust, and the suffering is great. But when our “conscience” (mind and heart) is on God, He promises “favor” (grace) in our endurance. He further encourages us to make certain we do not add to our suffering through a sinful response to mistreatment:
For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? (1 Pet 2:20a).
God always calls His children to answer sin with righteousness. In spite of our circumstance we must answer injury with stability, trust, perseverance, and faith. We are called to do the right things even when others are acting wrongly. Continuing Peter wrote:
But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God (1 Pet 2:20b).
Doing “what is right” means following God’s standard without regard to the actions of others or the uncertainty of one’s circumstance. This call is without exception and is meant for application in the most severe and extreme situations of life. When suffering injustice, believers are prompted to remember Jesus as our example:
For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, WHO COMMITTED NO SIN, NOR WAS ANY DECEIT FOUND IN HIS MOUTH; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously…(1 Pet 2:21-23).
The grief of abandonment is great and the earthly consequence can be dire. Many times divorce cannot be avoided because the absent spouse, along with the courts, will require a legal ending. But when the option remains with the abandoned one, he/she must rally and rely upon “Him who judges righteously.” Paul wrote:
Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men... Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Rom 12:17-18, 21).
Kurt left Jennifer suddenly after twelve years of marriage. Kurt’s departure shocked his pastor and became the focus of much anger and discussion within the church. After numerous unsuccessful attempts to contact Kurt for support and reconciliation, the Church Body began to advice Jennifer to divorce for her own protection. According to her friends, she needed “economic support and legal protection” from the potential actions of her sinful husband.
But Jennifer searched the Scriptures for answers. She even hoped for some exception that would allow her to pursue some legal remedy. But repeatedly she was shown God’s disdain for divorce and His call to endurance. She committed herself to “what is right” (1 Pet 2:20) even if she suffered. She entrusted herself to God, even as the world advised her to take an alternative route.
One year passed without her husband’s return. Kurt was involved with another woman. He wanted Jennifer to initiate a divorce but she refused. For reasons unseen, Kurt never took legal action. Jennifer waited as her house was sold at a loss. She moved with her children into her parent’s home. She took a job to support herself. She continued to trust and wait.
A second year passed without change while she continued to pray for restoration. The church, stirred by her perseverance withdrew their counsel to divorce and joined her in prayerful intercession. The men of the church continued to reach out to Kurt, confronting his sin while encouraging his repentance and return to Christ.
Jennifer met every threat with meekness and grace. She remained quiet when threatened. She did not defend herself when accused. She did not slander her husband but prayed for his recovery.
In the third year Kurt returned. Broken, sorrowful, repentant, and humble, he begged forgiveness. And Jennifer extended grace, much like the grace she had received in the midst of this unjust trial.
The residue of sin is hard. Their time of recover was lengthy and riddled with emotion and pain. Yet in the end, God’s favor (1 Pet 2:20) was sufficient and their marriage was restored to the glory of God. Together Kurt and Jennifer found the promises of God to be faithful and true, seeing that even the travesty of abandonment and the defilement of immorality could not overcome God’s love and intent for the marital union.
Who is there to harm you if you prove zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed…For it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong (1 Pet 3:13-14, 17).