First, if you haven’t already, click to read part one of this series. This is the second of three parts; part one dealt with the effects of divorce. Today we will focus on the theology of the topic, and part three will look at practical suggestions for the church to minister to teens of divorce.
Jeff Snow has spent the last two decades working in youth and young adult ministry in southern Ontario, Canada, both in a local church and parachurch context. For his Masters thesis, he wrote on the impact of divorce on middle-school, high-school and college youth.
by Jeff Snow
In our last article, we looked at the effects of divorce on teens as spelled out by researchers who have studied the subject. An overarching theme is the sense of loss that teenagers feel in various ways as the result of parental divorce. There are a few ways that those wanting to help teens affected by divorce can help them deal with these losses. We can work to replace the social capital they have lost, giving them the physical resources and support they need to heal and thrive. We can give them psychological support by way of helping them think properly about the divorce and their place in the situation.
Both of these are good and necessary. But divorce brings about more than an economic, intellectual, or psychological loss. Divorce brings with it a sense of loss that strikes much deeper into the soul of a teenager and impacts his life in different ways for years to come. These spiritual and existential losses are important to understand, for they lie at the root of the painful effects of divorce experienced by teens. As those involved in Christian ministry to youth, we are uniquely positioned to speak to these issues and minister to this less tangible sense of loss.
Divorce brings to a teen a loss of their sense of community. The most basic form of community is the family. Divorce pulls children out of that most basic form of community and by doing so, it strikes at the very nature of how God created us to live.
God Himself, by His very nature, lives in community, a community of mutual love among the three persons of the Trinity. Humans, created in the image of God, are created to live in community. Living in relationship is essential to our humanity.
Genesis 1:27 and 2:23 tell us that both man and woman and their one flesh union reflect the image of God. The early church father John Chrysostom expanded this idea to include children. In his view, “The child is a bridge connecting mother to father, so the three become one flesh.”
Divorce destroys this “one flesh” community of parents and children. Divorce does damage to the image of God as reflected in marriage. Though a teenager may yet find community within which to live, and still within his own being reflect the image of God, he is nonetheless impacted greatly by this loss of community, the loss of love, and the loss of the active model of the image of God in his life represented by his parents.
This loss of community strikes at the very core of the teen’s sense of self, his sense of being. Andrew Root, in his deep yet excellent book The Children of Divorce: The Loss of family as the Loss of Being, writes, “When that community (of mother and father) is destroyed, it is a threat to the child’s being. Divorce, therefore, should be seen as not just the split of a social unit, but the break of the community in which the child’s identity rests.” Root maintains that the effects of divorce cannot be limited to social and psychological factors. The root of the loss inherent in divorce is the loss of being and the subsequent anxiety resulting from that loss.
Root asks the question, “Can a person be at all, now that those who are responsible in their union for creating that person are no longer together?” He goes on to say that “there is no community more primary than that of mother and father, than those responsible for my being. When their community is not, my being is shaken.”
Divorce brings into question in the mind of the teen his very identity. If existence is found in relationship, then the removal of the key relational community in the life of a teen will impact their identity. The refuge and protection that family is meant to provide is pulled out from under the teen, and the safe harbour in which they can discover who they are no longer exists. They are left to figure out their identity on their own, caught between the two worlds which their parents are creating for themselves rather than for their children.
Ministry to teens of divorce will focus not only on social and psychological needs, but will zero in on issues surrounding identity, who they are in Christ, and their relationship with God as a Father.
A healthy view of God as Father is another area of loss among many teens of divorce. The idea of God being a father to the fatherless (Ps. 68:5) is not a comforting thought if God is going to be like their father. The idea of God as “Abba” and of the teen seeing herself as Abba’s child (Romans 8:14-16) is somewhat of a foreign concept. Yet coming to grips with these concepts and this understanding of God is important in order for the teen to be able to rediscover their identity and realize who they are as children of God. Our job as ministers to youth is to come alongside teens on this journey of rediscovering who they are in Christ and as beloved children of God. For as we noted last time, divorce leaves teens embarking on these journeys of self-discovery primarily alone.
One of the key roles of the parents within the family is the transmission of values and beliefs to the next generation. This was clearly spelled out in Hebrew law:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.
In an intact family, a community exists where the image of God, where the admonition to love God, where the instruction to follow His commandments, can be taught and modeled through the everyday routine of life. In divorce, that community is fractured. That place of refuge where children can have inculcated upon them the values and beliefs that will point them to a relational experience with God has disappeared. Their view of the image of God, their impression of God as Father, becomes deeply marred.
Instead of embarking on this journey under the watchful tutelage of their parents, children of divorce must create their value systems on their own, while living within the dichotomy of the often conflicting value systems being created by divorcing parents, putting teens in a position they were never meant to fulfill.
In divorce, the line of ancestral obligation is broken, and the teen is left to be what Elizabeth Marquardt calls a “moral forger” who has “to grow up quickly … trying to make sense of adult concepts and choices with the tools of a child.” The teen is left to figure out his belief system and to figure out exactly who God is, what He desires of him, and why that matters, entirely on his own.
It is the cumulative effect of these losses which often fly under the radar that creates the anxiety in teens of divorce that breeds many of the issues and behaviours we discussed in our last article. All young people wrestle with the existential questions of “Who am I?” “Where do I belong?” “Is there a God and can He be trusted as a Father?” But in the lives of teens of divorce, this search for identity and security is heightened as they pursue these questions alone, without the community of support that God created for them to have.
These losses breed anxiety in the lives of teens. Anxiety is different from fear. Perhaps that’s why we buy into the “kids are resilient” idea and assume teens will survive divorce relatively unscathed. Most teens of divorce are relatively free from fear. They are, for the most part, physically and economically safe. But that doesn’t mean they are free from an anxiety rooted in a loss of a sense of being and security that permeates their lives and exhibits itself in a myriad of issues.
It is this sense of anxiety that God the Father desires to alleviate as the teen of divorce grows in relationship with and understanding of Abba Father, and with the community He provides for the teen, namely the church. As the reflection of divine community, the church can come alongside the teen of divorce, providing him with a community in which to belong, with people who can remind him who he is in Christ and how the image of God is still evident in him. The church can provide a sanctuary where he can safely formulate a value system that corresponds to what God has created him to be. The church can provide a place where the anxiety caused by dealing with the many losses inherent in divorce can be borne by others in the community, and can be alleviated by bringing the teen in to a clear and healthy relationship with God the Father.
In our third and final installment, we will look at practical ways the church can be a divine community for teens affected by divorce.
to be continued…