Whatever our background, we sinners have one great need: salvation unto transformation in name of the Lord of Glory. In this name, any who may have experienced the ripping up of a family can find great hope.
There is a major trend that many of us know about, I sense, but think little about: divorce. We’ve all seen statistics about divorce; the American Psychological Association estimates that perhaps 40% of all married couples divorce, a truly breathtaking datum. If true, this is what devastation looks like in numerical form.
For those of us engaged in ministry, there is much more to consider than mere numbers. One matter deserving serious consideration today: the effect of a divorce on children. I’ve rarely seen a piece of content engage the effect of divorce on children from a spiritual angle. But if divorce is as widespread as it seems to be today, the church needs to think long and well about how to help all who go through a divorce, especially children—for children must live through the trauma of a divorce without much agency or voice. The trends of our post-Christian society tell us that divorce will not ebb in coming days, but will likely become more of a societal reality. In a divorce-saturated culture, how can Christ-loving believers and churches help such image-bearers? My focus here is not so much on practical steps, please note, but on a proper theological apprehension of the needs of the child who has survived a divorce.
Our culture today increasingly presents divorce as little more than a transitional moment. A couple got together, had some children, thought they had a life together, and then things fell apart. Much counseling and expertise in our time focuses on how to lower the emotional stakes of familial breakdown. While we hardly wish for acrimony during a split, it is true in many cases that children will almost certainly experience the sundering of a family as a traumatic event. They will likely feel unable to cope in different ways; they will feel emotions and unruly affections coursing in them, yearning to be expressed in manifold forms. Their entire life will change in the event of the dissolution of a marriage, and they will lose what semblance of stability they once had. Perhaps most significantly, they may well grow without a same-sex parent, and thus have little sense of the meaning of manhood and womanhood, the two identity pillars in the God-made world.
The effects of marital termination do not neatly contain themselves. They billow beyond expectation and prediction. The human person is not a piece on a chess-board; the human person is a deeply complex creature, full of spiritual, intellectual, emotional, psychological, and physical depth. This means that we will not experience events, especially traumatic events, as rote and ordinary affairs. Made by God with many sides, many dimensions, we will often struggle in ourselves to handle pain and trial smoothly. Even if converted to Christ, many young men and women find themselves confused about adulthood, unsure about marriage and the family, and still surfing waves of emotion that alternate between despair, rage, resignation, anguish, unrequited love for their parents, propulsive ambition (including the desire to distance oneself from one’s painful past), and more. These men and women have not lived through normal circumstances; they have in some cases—many cases—survived the social equivalent of a war, and not at all through their own choosing. How can we help such young Christians today?
We need to recommit ourselves to teaching, first and foremost. Churches are teaching institutions—they teach not only sound doctrine, of course, but the very way of Christ. Churches exist not merely to make converts, but to make disciplesin the name of the crucified and resurrected savior. In a good number of cases, children who have survived divorce will need even more teaching than other members. They will not have had someone teach them basic life skills. They may have no idea how to manage their finances. A young man may have no idea how to approach a young woman. A young woman may not have the faintest clue how to cook. Young Christians may never have had someone assemble the family for devotions. They may have little instruction in manners, little training in decorum, little guidance in decision-making. All this is true today for many younger folks, yes, and that matters for the work of local congregations. Still, children from broken homes require extra investment.
This reality presupposes that our churches are ready and eager to make disciples. Too many churches focus on bringing people in and then direct new members to care groups. Whatever their size, discipleship should not be a part of the church’s life. To a serious degree, discipleship is the church’s life. If the church isn’t a little spiritual factory of Word-driven discipleship, what is it? It’s certainly not a consistent practitioner of Christ’s Great Commission, the clear end of which is the training of faithful saints (Matthew 28:16-20). Polity matters greatly here: the elders need to be making disciples on a perpetual basis, and mature members who have been discipled by the elders need to be taught and urged to make disciples. If a church does not have this kind of culture, then we may know with certainty that many people will attend our assemblies, yes, but will not draw the kind of shepherding the Lord has set the church up to provide.
Children from broken homes need focused teaching on manhood and womanhood. Young men need to know the difference between effeminacy and manhood on the one hand and between machismo and manhood on the other. Young women need to know what it looks like to trust a man and submit to his leadership, a biblical teaching that may catch them off guard due to historic brokenness in their home. The point is plain enough: in a good number of cases, these children will have distorted views of what godly men are like and what godly women are like. They will have seen a man at his worst, perhaps, and a woman at her worst, or some combination of the two. They may well struggle as a result of this sin—sin which causes real trauma—to see marriage and the family as good. They may struggle to be disciplined, they may tend to hang back in life, and they may be fearful that their attempt to make deep connections with others will result in devastation. They may marry, raise children, and years into this grand venture find themselves lost, confused, and uncertain as to whether they are worthy based on their background to have a family.
Even as we seek understanding of unique trials, let us not fail to be clear: children whose parents are divorced need compassion and love, but do not need a new gospel. They are not less sinful than any other peer. They need the truths of Christianity and the rhythms of the Christian life—personal devotions, discipleship, local church membership and involvement—just as any believer does. They should not be trained to think of themselves as a victim; doing so, with even the best of intentions, ironically sets them up to be a life-time prisoner of their past. This is the worst thing they can be taught, right alongside hearing that they are a failure. (Really, the two verdicts are the same.) The child who survives divorce knows early what every single human being will learn in some visceral way in their life: we do not live in utopia in this fallen world. We are in a brutal place. People do terrible, even horrific, things to one another. Not everything resolves. Not everything gets better in earthly terms. Things fall apart. Sometimes you do not have the ability to make everything right in your life.
We all have wrongs done to us, some more than others. But we cannot embrace a victim mentality, and we cannot teach such a mindset to children from broken homes. As we come alongside them in mentorship and counseling, we must instead teach a victorious mindset. Even better, we should teach a conquerors’ mindset. What was it the apostle Paul observed? The church was falsely seen as “sheep of slaughter,” but was truly ὑπερνικῶμεν διὰ τοῦ ἀγαπήσαντος ἡμᾶς, “more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom. 8:36, 37). As life grinds all of us down, we do not feel like conquerors, but to be as frank as I can be, our feelings lie to us. We are more than conquerors in Christ.
This is important for people who have gone through deep waters. They are not victims, though they are survivors. But they are more than survivors in Pauline soteriology: they are conquerors. This is not due to positive thinking and self-help therapy. This is due to victorious Christology and God-guaranteed soteriology. Their warrior-savior Christ Jesus has fought for them, has protected them when others would not, when a father would not, when a mother would not, when everything else dissolved. Jesus Christ does not dissolve. He does not leave his family. He does not break bonds with his bride, the church (Eph. 5:22-33). He lived, died, and rose again so that sinners of every awful situation could know his love. Every believer needs to know these truths. Those who have overcome a troubled and broken past by divine grace will surely find them poignant and precious.
The church of the Lord Jesus Christ cannot undo the curse. Only Jesus can. Further, we will only know true restoration when we go to glory and make our home in the new Jerusalem. But until that glorious day, we need to offer teaching and training and shepherding that enables survivors to become disciples, disciples who know themselves not as victims, but as conquerors, whatever evil they may have suffered in the past. We do not whitewash trauma in the church. We know where trauma comes from; it comes from Satan. The preaching and teaching of the Word is God’s theological and ecclesiological campaign against Satan, and it is a campaign that is wholly effective when done faithfully.
As we preach and teach the truth, and as we counsel and shepherd into the truth, we offer redeemed sinners a hospital, a common hospital with Christ as the medicine of his people, to paraphrase J. I. Packer’s reflections on Puritan ecclesiology. This hospital is staffed with godly elders, with men of vibrant faith and shepherds’ hearts who can be father figures for those who barely knew their dad. It is filled with godly women who can offer help and training where an earthly mother has not done so. It contains fellow survivors, single men and women who are fighting for purity and focused on the greater joy that is in Christ. The church is a family, the family of Christ. It does not replace the natural family, for God has constituted the natural family for his glory and our good until the end of the age. But it is a little part of our heavenly family, the people of God from every tribe and tongue who are loved and ruled by a heavenly Father who could not be more good and merciful and strong and faithful than he is.
This is a cruel and bitter world. Whatever our background, we sinners have one great need: salvation unto transformation in name of the Lord of Glory. In this name, any who may have experienced the ripping up of a family can find great hope. They are not orphans. They are not victims. They are not ruined. They are those known and claimed by Christ, and through his blood, they enter a household that none can dissolve, none can destroy, none can pull apart.
In August 2019, my book Reenchanting Humanity releases. It covers God’s vision for the family in considerable measure. Pre-order it today. Also, thank you to Hunter Leavine, a good and thoughtful man, for conversation that produced this piece.