Divorce is not a good thing. Author Rubel Shelly emphasizes this repeatedly in his book, Divorce and Remarriage: A Redemptive Theology.
You cannot imagine today the problems you will create for all your tomorrows by getting divorced. You will be alienated not only from a former spouse, but from a host of people more closely linked to your mate than to you. The financial repercussions will be horrible. And there will be agonizing times of guilt, compounded by a sense of self-doubt. (Divorce and Remarriage, p 9)
I can recommend this book for a couple of reasons. First, I know Shelly is giving godly counsel based on a Biblical world view and years of experience helping people with marital problems. His goal is not to take a highlighter and summarize the Bible's teaching on the subject; it is to convey the heart of God on the matter, which is much more complicated than that. Second, the book challenges us to rethink what Jesus taught, which is valuable in itself. Even if we end up affirming our old opinions, we should never shy away from taking another look at them from time to time.
The heart of God on this matter must deal compassionately with the tension between the ideal for unbroken marriages and the reality of the human condition, which is always less than ideal. Shelly shows how God's forgiveness is real, and people who are divorced and/or remarried don't have to feel like second-class citizens in the church. May God forgive us for making them feel that way.
Because of the impact of mistaken opinions about divorce on real lives, this is a dreadfully needed book. I've personally hurt people with my judgmental attitudes, and witnessed families ripped apart by incorrect ideas about God's standard. I've also seen people forced to live celibate lives (or taught that this was their only way to see heaven) as a result of attempting to live up to a standard that is not God's, but man's. Knowing the joy of having a good marriage myself, I would have to think long and hard before denying someone else a second chance at one based on a few out of context scriptures.
I don't claim to have concrete answers about divorce, and thankfully, neither does the author. Instead, Shelly makes humble but powerful points that force me to think critically about the way I've always looked at verses like Matthew 5:27-30. What may seem cut and dried at first reading is clearly not when you add a few other verses to the mix. Throw in Paul's comments on the subject in 1 Corinthians 7, and you get the clear idea that the subject is not exactly—well, clear.
There are exceptions to any rule we humans want to make. Maybe that's why the new covenant was never intended to be a conglomeration of rules and regulations, because they can only go so far in conveying the heart of God. It's possible to comply with regulations and still miss the point.
What Shelly does well is force us to re-examine old assumptions and think past propositional truths like "If this, then that." He forces us to think about the purpose of many of the laws in the Old Testament dealing with divorce, pointing out that they were to protect women from heartless men who were culturally inclined to treat their wives less than chivalrously.
He explains that the certificate of divorcement was allowed by God, not because of the hardness of heart of the Israelite people in general, as I had always understood Jesus' words, but the hardness of heart of the men who would otherwise coldly turn their wives out on the street. The certificate was intended to certify that the woman was indeed free to remarry. It was her protection from being husbandless and homeless because of the callousness of her first husband.
Shelly also points out other things that mitigate the harsh conclusions we might read into some of Jesus' teachings. For instance, in his famed Sermon on the Mount, Jesus repeatedly used hyperbole like "If your eye offends you, pluck it out." His comments on divorce occur in the same context of hyperbolic teaching style. Jesus was likewise using a rhetorical device to explain the heart of God when he would say "You've heard this, but I say this." He was not attempting to introduce a harder and more stringent law to add to the already burdensome law he came to nail to the cross. He was simply explaining to the Pharisees in hyperbolic terms how they'd missed the heart of God on the matter.
There is much more to say about the subject, and perhaps I'll write more on it later. But if you've ever been bothered by the harm done to families and individuals in the name of a "faithful interpretation" of the scriptures on divorce and remarriage, you need to read this book. Honest mistakes in those interpretations have distanced a lot of people from God at a time when they are most inclined to call out to him. Those of us who have been blessed with good first marriages would do well to temper our judgment of those whose first attempts haven't turned out so well.
Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment! (James 2:12-13, NIV)