The pattern of my life is not pleasing to God.
But Jesus pleased him to the fullest extent possible. (Mark 1:11)
I don’t make much of an effort to spend time alone with God. I don’t think praying with God is a good use of my time.
But Jesus got up early and left everything to be with God. He was convinced that God would lend his limitless power to those who pray. (1:35; 9:29; 11:22–24)
I want people to think highly of me. I want to get them to do the things I want so that I will feel happy and fulfilled.
But Jesus put other people first and saw himself as their servant. (9:33–37; 10:35–45)
I like to supplement God’s law with a few of my own.
But Jesus refused to accept any manmade law that interfered with God’s will. (7:1–13)
I’d rather keep my life back for myself instead of giving it to God.
But Jesus gave up his life, submitting to the will of God. (8:34–38)
I like using my time and money in intelligent and practical ways.
But Jesus prefers inefficient and awkward displays of devotion to him. (14:3–9)
I only like to do God’s will if it’s easy.
Jesus was willing to do God’s will even if it meant being abused and forsaken by everyone he knew and loved. (14:36)
I tend to get focused on the daily grind, on projects and goals and minor details.
But Jesus cared about people and wanted to save them. (1:17)
I prefer simple, rigid rules and laws.
But Jesus understood that God’s law is all about giving people what is good for them. (2:23–28; 3:1–6)
I don’t want to allow suffering people to complicate my life.
But Jesus acted out of pity for them even if it inconvenienced him. (1:40–45)
I like being around attractive, well-mannered people who have their lives together.
But Jesus would much rather be around dirty, messed-up sinners. (2:13–17)
I don’t think about other people’s needs; I’m obsessed with my own needs.
Jesus was concerned about other people’s needs for food and rest. (6:31; 8:2)
I don’t worry much about people who have no spiritual leader.
Jesus longed to fill the void for people who didn’t know he was the Good Shepherd they should follow. (6:34)
I focus on physical problems more than the real problem of sin in my life. I don’t think it’s a big deal.
But Jesus knew that sin was the most fundamental problem that people have. He was horrified at the danger which sin posed to people and the judgment they would face for it. (2:4; 9:42–50)
I tend to think of myself as a pretty decent person who sometimes does bad things.
Jesus knew that people are rotten deep down and that bad things come from bad hearts. (7:14–23)
I keep thinking I can get eternal life by being a well-mannered, well-meaning person.
But Jesus knew that only humble, childlike, desperate people will enter the kingdom of God. (Mark 10:13–31)
I want to exclude people who don’t belong to my church or theological tradition.
But Jesus knew that God’s kingdom includes people who aren’t just like me. (9:38–41)
I don’t like it when people challenge my ideas about who God is and how he acts.
But Jesus loved to turn people’s beliefs about God upside down. (12:35–37)
Sometimes I get into arguments with stubborn people who refuse to change their minds.
But Jesus knew when it wasn’t worth the fight. (8:11–13)
I shy away from demanding change from people who need to change.
But Jesus was bold in proclaiming repentance and the gospel. (1:15)
I’d rather back down when confronted by spiritual forces that hate me and people who don’t want me around.
Jesus beat up the spiritual forces and rescued a suffering man. (5:1–20)
I often don’t know how to respond when people challenge my beliefs about God.
But Jesus knew exactly how to challenge the mindset of his accusers. (11:27–12:34)
I’m easily impressed by religious people and powerful institutions made by men.
But Jesus couldn’t stand religious people and declared that the kingdoms of man would be torn to the ground. (12:38–13:37)
I sometimes worry that the church will eventually be smothered by the world.
But Jesus was confident that he is stronger than Satan. (3:23–27)
I don’t get upset when people treat casually the things God says are holy.
But Jesus became incensed when he saw the temple treated as a marketplace. (11:15–17)
I treat marriage casually, as simply another important relationship in life.
But Jesus insisted that marriage was God’s special creation. (10:1–12)
I’m not so sure that God will always be there to rescue me.
Jesus wasn’t bothered by little things like life-threatening storms. (4:35–41; 6:45–52)
I doubt that God has much power to heal people who are sick or raise the dead to life.
Jesus himself has the power to heal chronic illness and raise the dead. (5:21–43)
What wondrous love, what mysteries
In this appointment shine:
My breaches of the law are his,
And his obedience mine!
Jesus doesn’t pull any punches, does he? When his disciples want him to explain his teaching, hoping that he will add a few caveats, he only gets more extreme.
This is hard stuff. Anyone who has seen nasty marriages and family conflict must feel sympathy for people in those situations. How could anyone object to such a divorce? We all want our friends and family to escape suffering, don’t we?
This was the way Jesus’ countrymen thought as well. They turned to Deuteronomy 24:1–3 to demonstrate that God permitted divorce if a man “has found some indecency” in his wife. While some (more conservative) Jews argued that this meant adultery was the only ground for divorce, most agreed that these verses allowed divorce for any reason. Regardless, all agreed that divorce was permissible.
Some of these Pharisees must suspect that Jesus holds radical views on this issue (and boy, are they right). They want to undermine Jesus in some way, and they know that if he places any restrictions on the right to divorce, he’ll become unpopular with the crowds. So they ask him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Jesus replies, “What did Moses command you?” Of course, they refer him back to Deuteronomy.
Now, here’s where Jesus brings down the hammer. The Deuteronomy passage didn’t command divorce; it acted as damage control in case of divorce—which it assumed was already taking place. It prevented God’s people from being defiled by forbidden forms of remarriage. Jesus tells the Pharisees, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment.” In other words, Deuteronomy doesn’t reveal God’s ideal plan for marriage. God was being flexible with his stubborn people; but Jesus hates hardness of heart, and he holds his disciples to a higher standard. So he tells them what God really thinks of divorce.
In order to establish God’s original plan for marriage, Jesus goes back earlier than Deuteronomy. He goes all the way to the creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2. He reminds the Pharisees that “God made them [man] male and female” (Genesis 1:27). They were created incomplete; God intended for them to be paired together. “Therefore,” Jesus says, “a man will leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” He’s quoting Genesis 2:24 here and establishing it as the foundation for marriage. God created man and woman to be paired together, and marriage is what weaves them together. It’s an act of God’s creation. For this reason, Jesus warns, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
In other words, divorce is man’s attempt to undo God’s work of uniting husband and wife. It’s an attempt at uncreation, at tearing apart God’s created order. Jesus insists that divorce is an act of rebellion against God, an attempt to usurp divine authority. Jesus has come to serve and submit to God, so he is adamant that his disciples not participate in such a power play that stands in total conflict to his mission.
What makes this teaching so hard is that divorce doesn’t feel like rebellion; it doesn’t feel like a power play. It feels like a painful and desperate attempt to escape an awful situation. That’s why Jesus’ disciples question him afterward. They’re shocked by how radical and insensitive his teaching is. But Jesus only gets more extreme: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Apparently, divorce is not only an attempt to usurp divine authority, but it’s a failed attempt to usurp divine authority. God refuses to accept man’s efforts to undo his act of creation. From his perspective—the only one that matters—a “divorced” couple is still married. He will not permit man to be victorious over him.
As Christians argue about divorce, the debate often centers around possible “exception clauses” found in Matthew 19:9 and 1 Corinthians 7:15. These are important discussions. However, it’s easy to make the mistake the Pharisees made, to focus on finding a loophole to get out of a bad marriage. Jesus calls his disciples to be willing to suffer as he suffered. Divorce is an easier path, but Jesus has not called his followers to an easier path. He wants them to explore other options.
This may be the most difficult saying of Jesus for me to stomach. It seems cruel not only for people in bad marriages, but also for people who are already divorced. Are they doomed to remain lonely if they aren’t able to return to their previous spouses? The fallout from Jesus’ teaching is terrible. It would have been just as terrible in his day as it is now. Yet he said these words anyway.
This leads us, I think, to the question, “Would Jesus ask his followers to suffer for his sake?” Would he dare to ask them to suffer through painful marriages? Would he dare to ask them to remain single for the rest of their lives if need be? I think we can say that yes, he would.
Jesus wants disciples who, like him, will remain in suffering if that’s what it takes to follow him. “If anyone would come after me,” he says, “let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). He was willing to suffer if that’s what it took to submit to the will of God. If you join him, he will be glad to call you his own when he comes in glory.