Over the years Christian individuals in emotionally destructive marriages have been counseled to forgive and reconcile with their spouse, reminding him or her of God’s command to forgive and to love unconditionally. Adultery, they said, was the only biblical grounds for divorce.
Implied in the counseling these people receive is the idea that they are called by God to maintain a relationship with their spouse even while he or she is repeatedly destructive toward them. But is that counsel truly biblical? Is someone ever biblically allowed or even encouraged to end a relationship or distance themselves from someone because of their unchanged sinful behavior?
God love for humankind is unconditional but he does not offer anyone unconditional relationship. He tells us that our sin separates us from him and that without repentance we have no fellowship with him (1 John 1:6). Our sin does not separate us from God’s love (Romans 5:8) but it does separate us from his presence (Isaiah 59:1-2). Jesus distanced himself from certain religious leaders because he didn’t trust them. He knew what was in their heart (John 2:24). Throughout much of the Old Testament, God withdraws his presence from his people because of unrepentant sin.
God calls people to a covenant relationship that is like a marriage. He not only wants us to enjoy his love, he wants us to love him back (Deuteronomy 6:5). He not only promises us his faithfulness, he requires that we be faithful in return (Deuteronomy 4:23-24). The book of Hosea is a picture of God’s love for his unfaithful spouse (Israel). He longs for her, but his relationship with her will remain broken until she is willing to change.
In this sinful world there is no perfect person and in every relationship there is some brokenness and suffering. That’s why Jesus tells us that when someone sins against us we are to go and talk to that person so that we can be reconciled. However, he also adds, if they refuse to hear you after you have repeatedly tried to get them to listen, he says, “Treat them as you would a pagan and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:15-17). Jesus says, if there is no repentance, the relationship you once had changes. Pagans and tax collectors were not trusted, nor were they friends, although a good Jew would help a pagan or tax collector who was in need, fulfilling the biblical mandate to love one’s enemy.
There are certain basic conditions necessary for any relationship (personal and professional) to be healthy and safe. They are mutuality, reciprocity, and freedom. One person can certainly make a bad marriage better all by him or herself, which may eliminate some strife and dissention, but one person cannot turn a bad marriage into a good marriage all by herself. It is an unfair and heavy burden we have often unknowingly placed on people because we strive to be true to the Scripture.
What’s the alternative? When Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt, seeking grain, Joseph cared for their needs despite the treachery they had done to him many years earlier. He had forgiven them but he did not trust them. He graciously ministered to their needs but did not seek reconciliation until he tested their hearts and saw that they were different. Joseph loved his brothers unconditionally (he sought their well-being) but they did not share intimate fellowship. It was all one-sided, it was ministry not relationship. (See Genesis 42-45.)
We are indeed called to be imitators of Christ and live a life of love (Ephesians 5:1), but let us not put a yoke on someone to do something that God himself doesn’t do. God is good to the saint and unrepentant sinner alike, but he does not have relationship with both. When someone repeatedly sins against someone and is not repentant and willing to change, it’s not possible to have a healthy or safe relationship with him or her, including marriage.
Being in close fellowship with someone is not a right, even if both people are Christians. It is a sacred privilege. The apostle Paul advises us to distance ourselves from people who are continually destructive, especially if their behaviors or attitudes are sinful and unacceptable, both to us and to God (1 Corinthians 5:9-11; 2 Thessalonians 3:6,14-15).
Loving a person unconditionally may indeed require sacrifice and suffering but we suffer and sacrifice for another person’s good, not to allow them to continue to sin against us. To do that is foolishness, not biblical love. Too many counselees have been wrongly instructed that biblical love means they must be nice and suffer quietly, even as they are being mistreated and abused. But as C.S. Lewis wisely wrote, “Love is more stern and splendid than mere kindness.”