Does Divorce Affect Faith?

Does Divorce Affect Faith?

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If you grew up in a home with divorced parents, would you say your parents’ divorce helped or hurt your relationship with the Lord? Would you be surprised to find out that studies are beginning to reveal that, in general, children of divorced parents are less religious when they grow up? While I’ve often considered the effect divorce has on our generation when it comes to marriage, cohabitation and our own divorce rate, I hadn’t stopped to consider that divorce could be a predictor of faith and church attendance. 

A new report, "Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith?" puts it this way (emphasis mine):

We have learned that when children of divorce reach adulthood, compared to those who grew up in intact families, they feel less religious on the whole and are less likely to be involved in the regular practice of a faith. In one national study, two-thirds of people from married parent families, compared to just over half of children of divorce, say they are very or fairly religious, and more than a third of people from married parent families currently attend religious services almost every week, compared to just a quarter of people from divorced families.

Those are sobering statistics. They indicate that our parents’ successes and failures in their marriage have a direct impact on how we view God. If we go back to Scripture, perhaps these studies shouldn’t be a surprise. God repeatedly uses marriage as a glorious, earthly example of spiritual truths. In the Old Testament, the relationship between God and the nation of Israel is repeatedly described in marriage terms: God as the faithful husband and Israel as the adulterous wife (Hosea). In the New Testament, we’re given the picture of Christ and His bride (the church) as another marriage picture. 

As we start to realize the significance of how God views marriage, it follows that if we get marriage wrong, there will be long-term consequences. The effects of the last several decades — no-fault divorce, increased cohabitation, radical feminism, and the idea that “love is all you need” — have led our culture to a place that radically devalues marriage. When divorce is treated as a viable and often sought-after “solution” to marriage problems, we begin to see how far this is from the high view God takes of marriage. Without a high standard of marriage, it becomes clear why subsequent generations not only lose a positive perspective on marriage, but on God himself. 

But before you succumb to the depressing idea that divorce predetermines your religious involvement, there is good news for children of divorce. A smaller sub-group of the million children that experience divorce each year find themselves more committed to their faith than those who grew up with intact families. In the loss and suffering of divorce, they turn to God for hope and healing.

So while one's childhood experience of divorce can be a predictor of how he or she views God, God is also in the business of redemption. Regardless of how intact your family was growing up, our Healer and Redeemer is able to use the good and bad experiences for His glory.  

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  • Comment by Alyson:

    It seems like after a divorce, often times everyone in the family stops going to the church they went to before. I imagine because of how that church treated them after the divorce, or because it was too awkward and painful for them to stay in a community that knew them before the divorce. I have heard that all too often church members respond to divorce in insensitive ways such as gossiping, taking sides, ignoring them, or verbal attacks. But even if a church responds well, it could still be hard to stay.

    Once they leave, both parties either go to different churches or fall out of the habit of going. Or maybe they try some other churches but don't find one to call home.

    I think it is sad because it is another loss the children and the ex-spouses often go through so soon after the pain of the divorce. But I'm not condemning because I can imagine it would be extremely difficult to stay, and starting over somewhere new could be better in some cases.

  • Comment by kaj:

    My parents divorced when I was about six years old, and then my mother remarried when I was ten.

    Has it affected my worldview? Definitely.

    Both birth father and stepfather have their pros and cons. Both have contributed positive things and negative things to my life.

    But when people tell me God is like a father, I say to them, "which one?"

    I learned that my mom and my dad got along in their marriage for the most part, and seemed to dodge their glaring differences until the kids came along.

    As much as they loved and wanted both my sibling and I, they were divided on how to raise us, especially in matters of education and what media (think movies and television) was acceptable or not.

    Being a child of divorce means that I never got to be a kid in some ways, and not to grow up in some ways, both at the same time.

    Even from high school, when I finally started to be interested in the opposite sex, I knew that I had to be careful about whom I would marry--that person and I have to be pretty much "on the same page" when it comes to spiritual matter, especially when kids come along.

  • Comment by Lindsay H.:

    I think a big reason that children of divorce are less likely to be Christian and stay in church is that, for the most part, divorce means that they grow up without their father in the home. In the vast majority of cases, women get custody (mostly due to our feminized society that thinks women make better parents). The truth is, the role of the father in passing on the faith to the children is tremendous. Children raised by a believing mother and unbelieving father are more likely to be unbelieving when they are grown (even if they went to church with their mother). On the other hand, children with a believing father and unbelieving mother are more likely to be believers when they are grown. Divorce where the mother gets custody will most likely mimic the pattern of an unbelieving father (even if the father is a Christian) because the role of the father in passing on the faith to the children is extremely limited when he doesn't live with his children.

  • Comment by Catherine:

    #3: "...our feminized society that thinks women make better parents"

    You mean as opposed to those Christians who believe a woman's main job in life is to stay at home and raise her kids? *points to post below*

  • Comment by Stephanie:

    "The truth is, the role of the father in passing on the faith to the children is tremendous. Children raised by a believing mother and unbelieving father are more likely to be unbelieving when they are grown (even if they went to church with their mother)."

    Do you have any studies to back this up? Are there differences depending on the gender of the child?

  • Comment by Sarah:

    I was raised by my believing mother and my unbelieving father, they divorced when I was 11. It was a messy break up and I have very little contact with my Father. I would say it has had both positive and negative effects on my relationship with God.

    I only became active in my faith once my parents had divorced. I learnt to fully trust and put my hope completely in God. This was a long hard lesson to learn. Looking back I am glad for the hard times as wouldn't have the faith that I have been blessed with today.

    10 years on I still struggle with seeing God as a Father. It's sometimes a daily struggle as I desire a relationship with my earthly father and I am constantly being reminded that I do have a God in heaven who is perfect in His role as God the Father.

    My sister on the other hand, has turned from God for the time being and I do believe this has a lot to do with our parents divorce and the struggles we faced. I trust God to draw her near to Him again.

    Having divorced parents is not ideal, but like everything in this world, God can use it to bring glory to Himself

  • Comment by BDB:

    Consider that this is more about correlation than causality. Those with the deepest faith may consider their vows to be sacred and therefore unbreakable.

    Those with casual faith, or none, may consider their "vows" to be something with far less than eternal significance.

    A person of "faith" who breaks their vows may definitely harm their children's faith. It becomes a problem: if the child fully accepts what may be a selfish decision by the parent to divorce, then they can't hold too tightly to what the Bible says. If they embrace what the Bible says, they may find themselves in a place where they need to reject some of the strategic choices made by a parent.

    But for parents who stick it out, and explain to their children it's what God expects when making a vow, then it reinforces the circle. They can both respect their parents and hold to what the Bible teaches. They don't need to choose one or another.

  • Comment by Anonymous:

    BDB (#7) is exactly the type of person who destroys divorcees, making them leave the church and making their children resent the church and turn away from God. Talk about shooting our own wounded!

    One of my girlfriends ended her marriage after years of counseling where her chronically adulterous husband had literally dozens of sexual liaisons--and despite claiming to be a Christian--refused to stop. Who paid the price? She did. She was shunned from the church and her children were never invited to birthday parties and church events. And you wonder why their faith isn't solid?

    This is the affect that BDB's judgementalism and condemnation have on children of divorce.

    Myth 1: Divorce happen in couples with "casual" faith. Not true, divorce happens even when one spouse has incredible faith.

    Myth 2: Divorce is always a "selfish" decision by a person of faith. Not true. Sometimes divorce is the right decision. Let's say you are married to a child molester.

    Myth 3: Parents who "stick it out" have the respect of their children. Not true. If there is abuse in the home, the children have zero respect for the life or the faith of the spouse who "sticks it out."

  • Comment by HAP:

    My parents had a truly miserable marriage, but I don't think even their closest friends knew it. We looked like the perfect Christian family. Then when I was eleven, my mother was in a horrible car accident and my father couldn't cope with her health and recovery issues. He left us and I had to do all of the cooking, cleaning, caring for my younger sister and as well as bathing, dressing, and caring for my mother. I'm leaving out many of the details but needless to say this was a real spiritual crisis in my life. My parents both claimed to be Christians but were behaving like something else entirely. I felt rather abandoned by other Christians as well. The pastor of the church we had attended as a family for years visited one time. Another church nearby where my mother had put on a children's mid-week program brought one meal. That was it. I realize now that maybe people where afraid that if they helped us it would look like they were taking sides. The person that came to the rescue... taking my mother to appointments up to three times a week and did all of our grocery shopping for nearly a year... wasn't a Christian at all.

    My parents' marriage, separation, and eventual divorce never caused me to doubt God's existence or his love for me, but it did make me really dive into the Bible to find out what it meant to be a true disciple of Christ and how to properly react to adversity. I became very critical of mainstream Christianity for a time. I also became very proactive in gaining knowledge about how to have a marriage that would honour God. By the time my parents divorced when I was twenty-one, I had read over a dozen books on marriage and listened to every Focus broadcast series. I was determined not to repeat their mistakes.

    As a single mother, my mom pushed on in faith the best she could. I will be forever grateful to her for that. I would encourage everyone to reach out and help single moms and dads. The children are watching! Today my sister and I are both Christians, have strong marriages, and are in very active roles in our churches.

  • Comment by elena:

    Perhaps, as some comments here suggest, children of divorce's statistically lower faith commitment is influenced by the church's response to their altered family situation--rather than simply due to their parents' choices. My parents did not divorce, but my father died when I was a teen. Though our church loved us, it still sometimes felt weird to belong to a single parent family, and relationship dynamics changed as people who were used to relating to my parents as a couple had to choose to adjust or to drop the relationship. I can imagine that all this would feel much worse with the added feelings of guilt or judgement which could accompany divorce.

  • Comment by BDB:

    Anonymous #8 - Your adulterous example is clearly a case where a divorce is Biblically acceptable. There are lots and lots of divorces where there is no adultery present. There are lots that don't involve anything specific like one party that is a convicted felon such as a child molester. Using extreme examples is just a distraction from the majority, which are about garden-variety selfishness by one or both. While I don't feel it is appropriate to list all of them I have witnessed personally, I've seen enough of these cases to decide that I'm not going to support someone in their selfishness.

  • Comment by BDB:

    And (#8) I think you missed my point. People who believe their vows are sacred and take the eternal consequences seriously do not have affairs. They remove themselves from situatons where they are at risk. I'm not saying that the wronged party should just accept whatever after the fact. I'm saying that BOTH parties have a duty to proactively keep their vows, and that is what will strengthen the faith of their children. Perhaps we should all consider Elisabeth Elliot's advice: The best thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother.

  • BDB: Just because you haven't seen it happen doesn't mean it doesn't happen. I personally know a (Christian, church attending) family that was devestatingly broken up because of just that "extreme example." The offending party (who is now in prison) had volunteered at church for _years_ (Thankfully, not with children). just because it doesn't happen often doesn't mean we shouldn't extend grace until we're certain. In addition, there are a lot of people who go through major life-change post divorce leading to stronger faith and more closeness to God.

    Another single mom I know walked into a church in the south with her kids who wanted to go to youth group -- at the door the "greeter" said, "Where's your husband?" The mom looked her in the eye and said, "I don't have one. Will that be a problem?" She took her kids to youth group faithfully, but didn't attend herself because of the hostility shown to her by people in the church.

    That's just sad.

  • Hi! In my country there is no divorce except for Muslims. But we have legal separation, annulment, and declaration of nullity of marriage. We recognize foreign divorces if initiated by a foreign spouse. Every year, we get a divorce bill in Congress but it has never been passed into law. I hope we pass a divorce bill soon. Not every marriage will be loving. Many marriages have become abusive. We should be able to stop the abuse. Then if nothing happens, end the marriage if necessary.

    My father had a mistress twenty years ago. He confessed and appeared to change. Then he had another mistress. He said that he never separated from his previous mistress.  My parents tried counselling but he refused to change. We advised him to seek medical help but he did not listen to us. We even told him the quote "The best thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother." But he never listens to us.

    My father who committed adultery then filed a petition for declaration of nullity of marriage based on his psychological incapacity (narcissistic and histrionic personality disorders). My mother did not file an answer so he got his petition. He married his new mistress and retired from duty. One day, I asked him if he was sorry for his sins, but he did not answer my question. He just said that he will stand by his decision. My father now attends the church of his new wife. I hope that my father is happy because he sacrificed so much for his happiness. Can someone be truly happy after forsaking his family?

    My mother is a leader in the church. Our church has been a great help to us because the people understand the suffering we experienced.  Our faith is strong because of the experience but we siblings are cautious about marriage. I have never experienced romantic feelings towards men and have never had a boyfriend, though I will be 30 next month. We just pray and take it one day at a time. Thanks for reading this long comment.

  • I can understand how someone who was raised in a Christian home that finally collapsed would have a very difficult time understanding God's way and growing in their faith, although it may become the other way around, as many sons and daughters of divorce have known God's love while trying to cope with all the distress and heartbreak.

    In my case, my mother became a Christian in my teens but as a new believer kept having struggles with her character and her attitude towards me, which made me not want to have anything to do with Christian faith. I finally became a Christian at 26, and learned through knowing Him that I wanted to get married to a God-fearing man.

    I ended up marrying a young man who appeared as one a few years later, only to find out he had very much the same character of most men out there: not wanting to find a job, not wanting to finish school, a good-looking but selfish, even bullying type. After I sought help in several instances and noticed he was not about to change, and found out he had been taking the money I made for us and our baby girl to spend in gambling and other things, I decided to divorce, and did not want anything to do with the church I was attending. After a couple of months I sought proper counsel from a different church, accepted my own sin and decided to work in my marriage, and restarted attending my original church, in order to seek help from the pastors to save my marriage.

    It has not been easy, but I believe the only reason I went back is that I wanted to get my marriage restored, and my husband was still attending there. I do not know what will happen in the future, but the leaders have tried to help and in case we finally decide to divorce, I will be attending the same church.

    I believe people may have preconceptions that since they decided to divorce they are no longer acceptable for the people in church, and even for God. But it is a lie, really. What happens in most cases is that pastors and leaders really want to help but do not know how to and want to respect people's wishes, so they withdraw.

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