Most biblical websites related to counseling and marriage suggest marriage is never too late to save. Pastors and counselors encourage women and men to never give up on their marriages. They discuss the value of staying with a partner even when only one spouse is trying, and the other seems not to care anymore. So, is there ever a time when a marriage is too late to salvage?
What is marriage?
God established marriage to be a union of a man and a woman. Genesis 2:24 says a man should leave his parents to hold fast to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. One theologian summarizes the biblical view of marriage as one of a voluntary, God-given, public social union of one man and one woman from different families to serve God. The biblical image of marriage between a man and a woman imitates the marriage of Christ to the church, which is an eternal marriage.
Earthly marriage is only a shadow of that spiritual reality, like the respective roles of husband and wife are only shadows of the perfect relationship between Christ and His bride. In Ephesians 5:22-23, Paul’s definition of marital roles indicates that women should submit to their husbands as they do to the Lord, while men are pushed to love their wives as Christ loved the church and sacrificed Himself for her. Even if men and women could live in a perfect form of marital unity as agreed in Scripture, their union would pale compared to that of Christ and the church when we’re perfected and live eternally with Jesus.
Fallen world, broken marriage.
Still, statistics say American marriages, even Christian ones, frequently divorce. Among evangelical Christians, 26 percent interviewed by The Barna Group had been divorced at least once. There had come a time in their lives when their marriage couldn’t be saved. This survey doesn’t explore the reasons for divorcing their spouses or what steps it took to try and save their marriages. Nor do the numbers of individuals who stayed married at the time of the survey reflect the state of their unions, for example, whether a spouse was being abused.
A percentage of those marriages were either extraordinarily healthy or doing okay. Some may have reached the brink of divorce at one point before recovering. The numbers don’t reflect those individual stories. Statistics confirm what we already know: marriage is meant to reflect the Christian couple’s ultimate reality as part of the body and bride of Christ, but humans are flawed. They can’t live up to the perfect picture set forward by Paul in Ephesians. According to his definition, the wife should follow the husband, as the church should follow Christ. A wife should let her husband be the family leader and should feel safe to do so.
A husband should live up to his role as the family leader by spending time in Christ and committing his life to respectfully and lovingly leading his wife and, if they’re blessed with them, their children. Together, they would give their lives to Jesus and yearn to reflect this mutually satisfying and sacrificial love to a watching world. They would be best friends but with the addition of an intimacy that friendships don’t possess. Another theologian asserts that few things are more unprecedented than what the Bible says about sexual generosity in a marriage. He quotes 1 Corinthians 7:3-5, where the apostle Paul discussed the “conjugal rights” owed to both parties.
The world promotes individualism, so it’s easy to lose sight of the deep friendship and selfless love that marriage represents. When the culture and its people say “you only live once” or “you do you,” implying that marriage is slavery, and even when Christians take Paul’s words out of context and say his instructions to the Ephesians about submission are oppressive, it takes security and a great deal of commitment in one’s faith to foster marriage through the challenging times that typically arise, one way or another.
Marriage counselors typically tell their clients that saving a deeply broken marriage is always possible with Jesus. Still, one will find more online resources that discuss the biblical grounds for separation. If a spouse or children are in physical danger, it’s appropriate to separate, and if the abusive spouse won’t repent and go through the necessary counseling to handle the aggression, then divorce is one way to protect all parties physically and financially. The same is true of emotional abuse, which can be insulting, shouting, gaslighting, or giving someone the silent treatment.
It’s challenging to navigate through the issue of biblical divorce, but research reveals the damage done even by emotional abuse. Proverbs 12:18 reminds us that reckless words can pierce like a sword, and Proverbs 18:14 asks who can handle a crushed spirit. What about the covenant two people make when they get married? How can someone consider breaking that promise? Marriage is an equality covenant, a contract between equal parties and an agreement entered into that includes promises to each other.
Is it ever too late to save a marriage?
There has to be genuine repentance, and the other party should seek forgiveness. The offended party must forgive and is required by Christ to forgive, though not subject themselves to ongoing abuse or unfaithfulness. Second Corinthians 7:10 reminds us that godly grief produces repentance that leads to salvation without regret. Repentance has to be genuine, then it’s life-giving. However, divorce takes enough time for both parties to get empathetic and scripturally sound counsel about repenting and forgiving.
The necessary steps in a divorce require at least several months once both parties have agreed to begin the process. First comes separation, then an agreement on how property is divided and custody arrangements where applicable. Then there’s a decision: do we really want to do this? Many biblical counselors tell tales of couples who try to work things out at the last minute. These couples might eventually experience a more profound unity and a more committed Christian walk. Unfortunately, those same counselors report that such miraculous stories are rare.
A marriage is too late to save if one or both parties don’t want to do the work. Even if the abuser or adulterous individual goes to therapy, repents their behavior, demonstrates a fruitful change of behavior and attitude, and seeks salvation, the other party must be willing to forgive and trust that person to no longer cause harm.