How Divorce Can Shatter a Child’s Faith
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to teach first through fifth graders at church about the term faith. The jumping off point of our discussion was the story of Jesus and the Centurion’s servant as relayed in Matthew 8:5-13. In that story, Jesus agreed to heal the Centurion’s servant after being amazed by his faith. Matthew tells us:
When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. [Matthew 8:10]
After discussing the story, the lesson covered five questions to help lay a foundation for faith in Jesus Christ. The five questions included:
- Who do we put our faith in?
- What is faith?
- Why do we need faith?
- Where does faith come from?
- What do we do with faith?
The more I studied for this lesson and reviewed scriptures related to each point, the more I began to understand why the divorce of a child’s parents can, and oftentimes does, shatter their faith in God. More than just inconveniencing a child, or making them mad or upset, divorce cuts through them at a very deep theological level leaving them questioning everything they have ever believed in and/or preventing them from trusting in Jesus Christ in the future.
WHO DO WE PUT OUR FAITH IN?
The answer to the first question, who do we put our faith in, is, I hope, very obvious. We put our faith in Jesus Christ. Acts 20:21 tells us:
I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus. [Acts 20:21]
Jesus is The Way, the truth and the life – no one comes to the Father except through Him. He is worthy of our faith. Jesus made everything and sustains everything in the universe. He chose to die on the cross for our sins. Ultimately, the point is that Jesus is worthy of our faith, and we can and should put our faith in Him.
For many children, this is an “easy sell.” If someone made me and gives me every good thing, of course I want to put my faith in Him. But, for the child of divorce who had that type of relationship with her earthly parents only to have that shattered in a moment, it is harder (and sometimes impossible) to convince them that anyone is worthy of their faith. If you can’t have faith in your parents to sustain the only environment and home you’ve ever known when you see them every day, how can you put your faith in someone that you cannot see? For children of divorce, this is a much more difficult, and much more intense decision of faith which leads well to our second point.
WHAT IS FAITH?
For purposes of teaching kids about faith, I used the “short” definition that:
FAITH = TRUST
Faith in God boils down to trusting that what God says is true and relying on Him to do what He has promised. While that is an adequate, and I think accurate, definition of biblical faith, I am much more comfortable with going to scripture for a definition of something like faith, and for that we turned to Hebrews 1:1:
Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. [Hebrews 11:1]
Let’s look at both parts of that definition. Faith is confidence in what we hope for. That means being certain that what we hope for is going to happen. I gave the kids the example of a tight rope walker. If you sat and watched a tight rope walker walk across a high wire 100 feet in the air, you would likely believe that they could do because you saw it with your own eyes. But, suppose that tight rope walker came up to and said, “this time I want to walk across with you on my shoulder.” For you to put your faith in that person (even though you have seen it done), you would have to be confident in what you hoped for (that he wouldn’t drop you). As Christians, what we put our hope in the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross. We place our hope in the fact that Christ dies on the cross for our sins and that, if we place our faith in Him, that we will one day live with Him forever the way we designed to live. We hope in Jesus.
This verse also tells us that faith is assurance about what we do not see. We put our assurance in things we cannot see every day. We have some level of assurance that the air we breathe in every minute will sustain us. We trust in gravity to keep us from floating off into space. As Christians, we place our trust in a God that, although we cannot see him, has revealed himself in creation, in His Word and in the lives of millions upon millions of Christians throughout history.
After Jesus’ resurrection, he was talking to Thomas (of “doubting Thomas” fame). Thomas proclaimed Jesus to be “My Lord and my God!” Jesus replied with:
“Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” [John 20:29 ESV]
“…faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”
As Christians, our initial faith (confidence and assurance) is based on some combination of God’s revelation of himself in creation and in the Bible and/or the testimonies about God of other people who have placed their faith in Him. As we live our Christian life, that faith is bolstered and reinforced by our own personal experiences with God. Rather than the blind faith that so many in the world accuse Christians of exhibiting, true saving faith involves a considered decision to place our trust in Jesus based on a confidence and assurance that what God says is true.
When it comes to God, our faith is based on an immutable (unchanging) God who does not, and cannot, violate His promises. Oftentimes, the closest we get to that type of relationship here on Earth is that between a child and his or her parents. It is a relationship born out of total dependence and trust. A child is born into a family with a mother and father and comes to rely on, and trust in, them completely. They become the child’s sense of being, sense of security and the measuring stick by which the child measures his life.
When that ends in divorce, it is more than just a child’s home that is shattered. It is his sense of being. It is the sense of trust that the child has placed in the two most important people in his life. If a child’s parents can let him down and turn his world upside down in an instant without even consulting him, then how can that child learn to trust another human being that he can see, let alone a God who he cannot see? The sense of trust and faith is forever altered by the two people God put in his life to model God’s love. That is an earth shattering, faith shaking event, in the life of a young person that ripples of which will be felt throughout his lifetime. If an earthly father can let him down so significantly, than why would a child expect anything else from a heavenly father?
WHY DO WE NEED FAITH?
In order to understand faith, we must grasp why it is important that we have faith. Is it simply an accessory that somehow makes our lives better like a nice suit or beautiful jewelry? Is it a piece of a grander puzzle? Can we get by without it?
The Bible is very clear about the reason for faith:
…and everything that does not come from faith is sin. [Romans 14:23b]
Let that sink in for a minute. EVERYTHING that does not come from faith is sin. When we try to do things our own way and be good enough rather than have faith in God, that constitutes sin. Everything that we do that is not based on trusting and putting our faith in God is sin, and sin is such a grievous thing to God that our Lord has to die on a cross to pay the price for your sin and for mine. Given that, our next verse should not come as much of a surprise. It merely approaches the issues of faith from the other direction:
And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. [Hebrews 11:6]
Everything that doesn’t proceed from faith is sin, and without faith it is IMPOSSIBLE to please God. Faith is pleasing to God and anything other than trusting in Him is not pleasing to Him because it is sin! The verse tells us that we must believe in God and that He rewards those who seek him. If we have faith and seek God and his will for our lives, God will reward us! It might not always happen when we want it to, or exactly how we think it ought to happen, but God will reward our faith.
Faith in God is absolutely critical to our lives. When children experience the life altering and soul shaking event that is their parent’s divorce, and all the ramifications of it, their ability to trust in virtually anything is critically injured. Not only do they lose the ability to trust themselves and to trust in other people, their ability to trust in the God of the universe is hindered if not destroyed. They struggle with faith, and since faith is the very foundation of our lives, they are left trying to live their lives on a shaky foundation. Until children of divorce are able to place their faith in, and trust in, God, they are stuck in a position where it is “impossible to please God.”
WHERE DOES FAITH COME FROM?
That brings us to our next question, and a very important one at that: Where does faith come from? If it is impossible to please God without it, it is important to know how we get some. Faith is not something you can pick up at the local Wal∙Mart. You don’t accumulate points that you can trade in for faith like in a video game. It doesn’t fall from the sky every morning. There is only one source for the faith we seek, and that is from God Himself. Consider the words of Ephesians 2:8
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— [Ephesians 2:8]
We don’t choose to have faith because we’re smart or good enough or anything else. Even the faith to believe in and follow God comes directly from God. He gives us every good thing that we have including the ability to trust in and follow Him. We love and follow Jesus because God allows us to not because we are special or deserved it. Galatians 5:22-23 reminds us of a litany of things that are attainable only through our relationship with God:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control [Galatians 5:22-23a]
Faith comes from our relationship with God the Holy Spirit. Faith is not something that we have ourselves but something that God gives us out of his grace. Grace is giving us something we don’t deserve, and without God we wouldn’t even be able to have faith in Him. He gives us everything!
This fact should be encouraging to both children of divorce and those of us who work with them. While we can help children of divorce to understand the necessity of, and benefits from, placing their faith in Jesus Christ, we cannot give them faith. The faith that they need, and hopefully will attain to, is a faith that is given directly by God. Ultimately God is in control. He heals the brokenhearted. He restores the faith of the disenchanted. We love because God first loved us, and we have faith only because God gives it to us. This necessitates that we be constantly and earnestly in prayer for the souls and the lives of these children of divorce. We will discuss that more in a couple of weeks when we look at what the church, and those who work directly with children of divorce, can do to help restore their faith, but in the end that restoration and ultimately reconciliation is up to God.
WHAT DO WE DO WITH FAITH?
We know from our discussions the last couple of weeks that faith is akin to trust, and that the Bible tells us to place our faith in God because without faith it is impossible to please God. We also discussed how God provides even the faith the He tells us we need in Him. Which leads naturally to the question, what do we do with this faith? I contend that the answer to that question depends on how you answer one very important question:
HAVE YOU PUT YOUR FAITH IN JESUS CHRIST?
For those who have not yet put their faith in Christ
For a child (and anyone else) who does not yet know Jesus as Lord and Savior, the first step of faith that they need to take is to trust in Him and His death on the cross. The first thing you must do with faith is to put your faith in Jesus Christ. That means believing that He is the Son of God and that He came to earth and lived a perfect life only to die on the cross for our sins. It means believing that we have all have sinned and that there is nothing we can do to earn our way back to God. It means believing that we must choose to follow Him and put our trust in Him and Him alone in order to be saved, to be reconciled to God and have a personal relationship with Him. We have to make Jesus the Lord of our life and follow him. If you don’t know Jesus, the first step of faith is to believe in Him and place your trust in Him.
So many times, when we hear testimonies of how people came to put their faith in Christ, those testimonies include some aspect of the person being at a low point in their life when God called them to follow Him. The fact of the matter is, God shows up very often in our darkest hour of need. It comes as no surprise then that out of those places so many people choose to put their faith in Him. It is a great grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that He allows us to be broken enough to realize just how much we really need Him rather than continuing to wallow in our perceived independence and self-reliance.
Children of divorce are oftentimes at the lowest point in their young lives at a time when their world seems to be collapsing in front of them. Despite their difficulty in trusting in anyone (as we have discussed previously), we must continually point them towards Jesus in these low moments of their lives. We serve a gracious and loving God, and He can and does work through devastating circumstances (like divorce) to bring people to Himself. For the child of divorce who does not know Christ, this is the first step of faith that we must guide them towards.
For those who have put their faith in Christ
The Bible is far from silent on the issue of what faith means for believers. Faith is not a one-time thing that we need only at the moment of originally trusting in Jesus. Faith is not only about putting Jesus in control of our lives, it is the basis for how we continue to live our lives for Him. Once we have accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior, the Bible tells us that faith still plays an important, and foundational, role in our lives in so many ways, That is why it is so important to help these children of divorce to rebuild their faith in God and establish a firm foundation in that faith that will help them to overcome the ill effects of the divorce and live a life that glorifies God. Let’s look at just a few of the things the Bible tells us about faith in the life of believers.
Live by Faith
The Bible tells us that we should live by faith. Everything that we do should be based in our faith in Jesus Christ. Consider Galatians 2:20:
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. [Galatians 2:20]
For the child of divorce who has placed his faith in Jesus Christ, it is important that we remind them of that faith and encourage them, no matter how hard it might be, to live by that faith. When the world seems upside down, and parents are not behaving appropriately, we can remind kids of their trust in someone who loves them so perfectly and so completely that He gave His own life for them. In a time of turmoil, this can help to ground kids in the truth of God’s love.
Approach God in Faith
Not only can we remind these children that God loved them enough to die for them, we can, and should, encourage them to talk to their Heavenly Father. The Bible tells us:
In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence. [Ephesians 3:12]
Through our faith in Jesus Christ, we are completely free to approach God with our fears, with our worries, with our hurts, with our pains, with our hopes, and with anything else that we need to talk to Him about. In a time when their normal support structure has disintegrated, children of divorce need to know that they can always – ALWAYS – turn to God in faith. He does not always answer our prayers when we want Him to, or how we want Him to, but in faith we know that we can ask Him and that He always has our best interests at heart.
Put on faith
Several times, the Bible speaks of faith in terms of armor. As we live in this world, God gives us faith to persevere and fight. Far from a tranquil easy life, the Bible lets us know that a life of faith involves fighting for the things of God and persevering. Consider 1 Thessalonians 5:8:
But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. [1 Thessalonians 5:8]
As Christians, we “belong to the day.” That day is the day which we hope and long for. That day will be marked by our future reign with Christ as co-heirs of the Kingdom. It is that day, secured by the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross in which we hope. Accordingly, we must be prepared to persevere and battle in this day. In doing so, God gives us faith and love as a breastplate to protect ourselves. We wear our faith from God, and in God, as a protective covering in our battle against everyday life.
For children of divorce, this battle is so often readily apparent. So many times, they are engaged as innocent casualties in a war initiated by one or both of their parents. They wage war against change and fear and anxiety. In that battle, we must remind them, and model for them, that faith is a breastplate that protects and holds them securely.
Take up the Shield of Faith
Elsewhere in the Bible, faith is described metaphorically not as the breastplate but as a shield:
In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. [Ephesians 6:16]
We are instructed by God to take up the “shield of faith.” Unlike the breastplate which we put on to protect us until it is taken off, a shield must constantly be raised against the onslaught of arrows. We must actively appropriate the faith that God gives us in this way.
For children of divorce, this means that they must turn to, and rely on, their faith in those moments when the world seems most against them. They must remember their faith in God and rely on it to fend off the attacks of this world. When they feel like less of a person because the union that originally brought them into this world has dissolved, they must ward off that attack by having faith in who God says they are. When the world tells them that they will never feel happy again, they must raise the shield of faith in defense and remember that true joy is found in Jesus Christ. When they feel rejected, abandoned and forgotten, they must deflect those arrows with the shield of faith that tells them that God knows every hair on their heads, collects their tears in a bottle and has loved them with an unquenchable love from before time began.
Stand Firm in Faith
Several of the Bible’s “faith verses” deal with perseverance. A life of faith will not be without trials and tribulations, which is something the child of divorce can relate to. But, God gives us the faith to endure and stand firm through our faith in Him:
Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong. [1 Corinthians 16:13]
This is perhaps the hardest of most critical thing that children of divorce who already have a relationship with Christ must do. There is no doubt that our faith is a gift from God, and He also gives us the grace to persevere, but there is some element of it that also requires us to “stand firm in the faith.” Despite everything going on in their lives, we must encourage children of divorce to stand firm. We must point them directly to God and encourage them to share their struggles with Him and to put their hope in Him. When the foundation of a child’s life seems to be crumbling underneath him, a foundation of faith will provide a solid ground for these kids to rebuild their lives.
Grow in Faith
Our battle of faith, though, does not end with standing firm. The Bible tells us that we must continue to grow in faith:
Neither do we go beyond our limits by boasting of work done by others. Our hope is that, as your faith continues to grow, our sphere of activity among you will greatly expand, [2 Corinthians 10:15]
We ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love all of you have for one another is increasing. [2 Thessalonians 1:3]
Strengthen Your Faith
This growth results in a strengthened faith, and the Bible is clear how we do that:
So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. [Colossians 2:6-7]
As we live our lives in Christ, we are built up in Him, and our faith (which is learned previously) is strengthened. This results in an overflowing of thankfulness.
I see three things in these verses that I think are important to remember when it comes to ministering to children of divorce:
1. Faith is all about our focus. For a large number of children of divorce, their lives become all about the divorce itself and the ramifications that result from that divorce. It is easy, and understandable, that these kids will focus on, and spend a good deal of their time reacting to, the divorce. In essence, the divorce itself, and more precisely the impacts of that divorce, become the central focus of the child’s life. In order to strengthen their faith and begin the healing process, that focus must be shifted back to where it properly belongs – squarely on our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
2. This faith is a faith that was “learned previously.” In a world where a large percentage of the kids in our ministries have already, or will someday, experience the divorce of their parents, this is just another reason that we must work fervently in the lives of kids who have not yet experienced this tragedy and loss to build a firm foundation of faith. A well established and grounded faith in Christ, prior to divorce, while not totally alleviating the impacts of the divorce, can help some of these kids to weather the storm.
3. This type of strengthening faith results in an attitude of thankfulness. Throughout the Bible, we see that focusing on ourselves and our own circumstances can lead to despair. On the contrary, focusing on God and focusing on others, helps to realign our focus to where God says it should be. Time and again, we see that this represents God’s best for us. All children are prone to this self-focus, but children of divorce face the added pressure of focusing on, dwelling on, and lamenting how the divorce has affected their lives. This merits a word of caution though – as you attempt to refocus a child of divorce on thankfulness, empty platitudes like, “You should be thankful that you still get see your Dad once every couple of weeks” are not helpful and will likely lead a child to write you off.
Finally, in the Book of Hebrews, the Bible reminds us of the importance of having people in our lives whose faith we can imitate:
Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. [Hebrews 13:7]
The Bible exhorts us to remember those who taught us the word of God and imitate their faith. That exhortation comes with one caveat however – we must “consider the outcome of their way.” When selecting people to model the faith of, it is important to discern whether or not their own faith has resulted in the kind of life that warrants imitating.
So, what does this mean for the children of divorce? As those who minister to children and those who care about children of divorce, we must provide them with role models of faith that are worthy of being followed. For many of them, the divorce of their parents has left an absolute void of role models in their lives. Parents have abandoned them or become so caught up in rebuilding their own lives that they no longer serve as adequate role model. Statistics show that men and women flee the church after going through a divorce taking their kids with them. As Christian men and women, we can stand in the gap and provide these kids models of faith worthy of imitation. To be those types of models though, that means that we must constantly be evaluating the “outcome of our own way.” Before we can model faith for these kids, we must be living of life of faith worthy of being followed.
I want to leave you with one last verse about faith from the Bible. This verse reminds us that our faith, our lives, and everything that we have and do is all about Jesus – the founder and perfecter of our faith!
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. [Hebrews 12:1-2]
How Can the Church Help Children of Divorce on Their Faith Journeys.
The Bible is clear:
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12 ESV)
The battle for a child’s soul is not a battle between flesh and blood. No matter what parents may have, or may not have, done – no matter how devastating the news might have been – no matter what the circumstances of this world are, the battle for a child’s faith takes place in the spiritual realm.
Pray for the child of divorce. Pray with the child of divorce. Pray for single parent families. Pray for the strength of married couples in your church. Teach children of divorce to turn to their Heavenly Father in prayer in times of rejoicing and in times of need. Prayer must be an integral part of any ministry to children of divorce.
Start early. The statistics are clear and undeniable. Many of the children in your ministries will suffer through the divorce of their parents. There is an old saying that says,
The best defense is a good offense.
I believe this applies to the faith of a child of divorce as well. We need to be very intentional in our ministries to lay a firm foundation in Christ for our kids. We need to let them know that they will face trials and tribulations in this world. Those trials and tribulations don’t always wait until they grow up and become adults. Jesus says,
I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33 ESV)
As children’s ministers, we must have a sense of urgency about helping kids to put their faith in Christ and understand the power they have in Christ so that those who do face a divorce of their parents can stand firm in their faith rather than falter and fall away.
So many children of divorce live in homes with parents who have lost the ability or the will to model what it looks like to be a follower of Jesus. The Bible tells us:
Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:20 ESV)
As the church, we must provide these kids with role models. We must model what Christian marriages look like so they know what God’s intention is. We must model what it means to be committed and stick around when the going gets rough. We must model forgiveness for the people in our lives who have hurt us the most. As ambassadors of Christ, we must reflect his love to these kids.
We, as the church, must recognize that divorce in the church is a large and growing problem, and its impact on kids is lasting and deep. The spiritual impact of a parents’ divorce cuts kids to the very core. If we are going to help these kids, we must understand and empathize with what they are going through. We must have a plan for addressing the issue of divorce, and the resulting consequences, in our church.
Church is about community. For children of divorce, their closest community (their families) has been destroyed leaving them without a support system in their time of greatest need. The Bible tells us to:
Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2 ESV)
As the church, we must find ways to be a community for these children of divorce. We must find ways to create intergenerational community that these children can learn from and rely on. Only after we have found ways to bear their burdens are we free to speak into their lives and point them towards Jesus, their ultimate source of healing and contentment.
For more resources and information on divorce, family disruption and modern families please visit our Hope 4 Hurting Kids Divorce and Modern Family Help Center.
This article is updated and adapted from articles originally published on Divorce Ministry 4 Kids on February 27, March 5, March 12 and April 2, 2012.