Previous article in this series: April 15, 2009, p. 316.
For decades now the worldly psychologists and sociologists have been reassuring society that divorce, rightly done, has no serious, long-term effects on the children of divorce. They repeat this mantra to the present day, although statistics continue to pile up undermining that false claim. Those who are children of divorce themselves, like Kristine Steakley and Elizabeth Marquardt, fully expose the lie.1 Writes Steakley, “Our actions have consequences, and one of the consequences of divorce is the battered hearts of children whose homes are broken when marriage vows are abandoned” (10).
The focus of this editorial is the church’s responsibility to the children of divorce—both officially as institute and unofficially as church members. In order to know how the church can and must help children of divorce, we must know something of the spiritual and emotional damage divorce wreaks on children.
Take your seat in the pew next to the child of divorce, and listen with the ears of that child. The reading of the law suddenly takes on a different significance at the fifth commandment—”Honor thy father and thy mother.” Listen, with this new perspective, to the sermon on the Heidelberg Catechism, Q. & A. 104. “What doth God require in the fifth commandment? A. That I show all honor, love, and fidelity, to my father and mother….” Show honor to a father who has most dishonorably deserted his children. Show love to a mother whose love for her children grew cold, and she forsook them. Show all faithfulness to parents who were grossly unfaithful to their wedding vows, and to their calling to be godly parents. Do you begin to understand something of the spiritual struggle for the child of divorce?
Listen now as the Lord’s Prayer is expounded, starting with the words, “Our Father.” The Bible reveals the analogy between God and earthly fathers (Ps. 103:13: “Like a father pitieth his children, so the Lord…”). For most believers, the word father brings up pleasant thoughts, and the minister can profitably use this biblical comparison to develop the truth of God’s loving care for His people. However, for the child of divorce, this name evokes not good thoughts, but evil. Kristine Steakley has an entire chapter devoted to this problem (“Getting Past ‘Our Father'”). She writes,
Using father language to talk about God is a barrier to faith for many children of divorce. We hear that God is our father, and instinctively we think of words like abandonment, loss and unfaithfulness. Those of us who have seen our fathers leave our family, who have seen our fathers have affairs with other women, who have been the child afraid that daddy no longer has time for us, can think that a God who is called Father will be the same way. Who is to say that God will stick around, that he will love us always, that he will never forsake us? If he is our father, well, we know what to expect from that kind of relationship, and it is not good (147).
Not infrequently, the church itself wounds children of divorce. The church that is unwilling to preach against the sin of unbiblical divorce, and that tolerates it and the subsequent remarriage, places its approval on these grievous sins against God and the children. How can a child of divorce sit in a church that will not condemn his father’s desertion of the family and remarriage to another woman? How can he trust that the word preached is faithful to the Bible when God’s word on marriage is so blatantly contradicted?
The wounds of these children are not healed but made worse by church members who do not know how to help. Many members, raised in intact homes, scarcely know how to begin dealing with children of divorce. Steakley describes the experience of many:
Those of us in Generations X and Y who are children of divorce and churchgoers typically found little conversation about our family structure in religious settings. For the most part we were ignored. Occasionally we were ostracized. There was a stigma attached to being a child of divorced parents, and we learned to keep it under wraps (114).
This pain lingers into adulthood if members of the church view these children as tainted, as unreliable, as more likely to divorce if they marry. This also can reflect on God in the minds of the child. “When Christians let us down, we can feel that God has let us down. The church is the body of Christ. When we feel slapped around or overlooked by the church, we can begin to feel that God has done the slapping and ignoring” (Steakley, 155).
In addition to all of that, writes Steakley, many children of divorce blame God for their parents’ divorce. She explains:
Surely God could have stopped our parents from getting a divorce. If he is sovereign, isn’t the whole thing his fault anyway? If it is his fault somehow, then we are justified in turning our backs on him, in being angry at him and refusing to step foot in his house. God thus becomes our scapegoat (154),
She immediately points out the wrong thinking. “God bears no guilt for our sins. We are wholly responsible for them. He bears no guilt for our parents’ divorce. They made their own choices, rightly or wrongly, and any guilt is theirs and theirs alone” (155).
In the face of these barriers, burdens, and wounds, the church is called to proclaim the Word. The preaching must set forth the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, identify sin as the cause of man’s misery, and call all men to repent and believe in Jesus Christ. In that message is hope.
The hope for the children of divorce, as it is for all wounded, struggling believers (which is all believers), is God. There is none else. Who God is and what He is like gives hope. He is hope because as God He islove, mercy, justice, compassion, wisdom, and power. A particularly refreshing aspect of Steakley’s book is that she does not hedge on the truth of God’s sovereignty. This is where nearly all religious literature fails. God, being (supposedly) only love, could not possibly will that all this evil come upon these children. So He stands helplessly by as the tragedy unfolds. Not so Steakley. She points out the sorrows inflicted upon Job. And in the end of the book of Job, where we would expect God to come out with a logical explanation, He does something very different. She elaborates:
Instead, God shows up and hands Job his celestial resume. His reasoning is that of a parent who says, “Because I said so.” God essentially tells Job, “When you are big enough and wise enough to create a magnificent universe and keep it rolling along perfectly for a couple of millennia, then you can begin to question me. Until then, let’s remember who is the Creator and who is the created” (94).
She adds this insightful application:
It is not the answer we are looking for, but ultimately it is the only answer we get from a God who is beyond our understanding. And it is the only answer that offers real comfort. How can it be comforting? Because we know that, indeed, our God made everything that exists; he is sovereign over all of creation, including us, and not one tiny thing that happens escapes his notice or thwarts his plans. The horrible things that sometimes happen in the secrecy of our families, in homes where we should have been safe, have not been secret from God, nor will they remain secret. Paul says that God will one day judge us and “bring to light what is hidden in darkness”,
God is the hope for the children of divorce because this sovereign God has a plan both for the universe and for each life. Since He is perfectly wise, His plan has no flaws. Although His plan is rarely our plan, His is higher and infinitely better (Is. 55:8-9). And because God is sovereign, He is able to make all things work together for good to them that love God (Rom. 8:28).
This great God is also perfectly holy. He condemns sin and holds every man, woman, and child responsible for his or her sins. The most heinous act ever committed by man, the murder of the Son, occurred by the sovereign determination of God; yet the men who performed it with their “wicked hands” are guilty (Acts 2:23). This is what the church must preach, confirming the word with Christian discipline.
But the church must also preach that God is a compassionate Father to His children. Difficult though it may be, children of divorce must come to understand and love the fatherhood of God. The church must carefully teach that God has created the position of father in the race of men in order to be able to point to His care of His children. Yet God is the true Father. Earthly fathers are but dim reflections of the true Father. They also fail—every one of them. But God, our Father, never, ever forsakes, abandons, or ceases loving His children.
The clearest manifestation of God’s love and mercy is Jesus Christ. He is the high priest who understands our every suffering. He is the man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief. He experiences the load of guilt for sins He did not commit. (A child of divorce very often blames himself for his parents’ divorce.) The Lord understands rejection—having been rejected at every turn, from Bethlehem to Nazareth, from His brothers to His disciples. In the end, His own Father rejected Him, pushing His Son away into the dark abyss of eternal wrath. Knowing all this suffering from experience, this merciful Jesus runs to our cry in our troubles and temptations (Heb. 2:18).
Church members must reflect the same loving concern for children of divorce that God has shown to us. These children have special needs and burdens. We must talk with them about their special situation, their struggles, and their heartaches. We must not heal the wounds lightly, saying “Peace, peace; it will get better; you will get over it.” But we must lead them, walk with them, guide them to God. Steakley writes,
God knows our sorrow intimately because he made us and knows everything about us…. He promises to heal our broken hearts and be with us in the process. He prays for us when we are too worn out with grief to form words. He gives comfort to our souls through his Holy Spirit (31).
Be warned, people of God! We will not be able to help these wounded saints if we consider them inferior, perhaps even “risky.” Are children of divorce more susceptible to divorce? Unbelievers may well be, but believing children of divorce are more committed to a lifelong marriage than most believers. They know the dangers. They know the devastating effects of a bad marriage and of divorce on children. For those reasons, they usually work harder at a good marriage than those who grew up in an intact home.
God demands much of His church. The church must boldly proclaim the unbreakable bond of marriage. The Protestant Reformed Churches, and all churches that maintain that God unites one man and one woman for life, have no reason for embarrassment! On the contrary! And do notice that rejecting remarriage after divorce for either party is in harmony with the godly concern for the children. What could be better for the children than that the husband and wife reconcile in the way of godly repentance? Dad and Mom back together? One home? One family again? That is the heartfelt desire, the secret hope of the children. But that hope is dashed when one or both parents remarry. The door to reconciliation is closed.
Again I say, preach these truths clearly and boldly. Teach them in catechism, home, and school. Demand holiness of life in the members. And members, exhort each other to faithfulness in your marriages.
The ultimate cause is the glory of God in the beautiful picture of His covenant manifest in the marriage union. But God’s purpose for marriage is also the godly seed of the covenant. He continues His covenant in the generations. For these children, therefore, strive mightily for strong marriages. God will bless such efforts. Spiritual blessings will flow richly from a husband and wife united in biblical instruction and discipline, and a godly example. May God keep His people faithful in this most significant of relationships.
1 These are the authors of the books Child of Divorce, Child of God, and, Between Two Worlds, respectively.