Editors’ Note: Send your theological, biblical, and practical ministry questions to firstname.lastname@example.org along with your full name, city, and state. We’ll pass them along to The Gospel Coalition’s Council members and other friends for an answer we can share.
Donna E. from Fairfield, Indiana, asks:
Can you help with how to talk to your kids about their grandparents’ divorce? I come from a broken family and have seen God’s grace in many ways, but I don’t have a clue how to communicate this in a loving way: the sin, God’s grace, the loss of the only grandmother they know.
We posed this question to Jeremy Pierre, assistant professor of biblical counseling at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and pastor of member care at Clifton Baptist Church in Louisville.
There is something particularly gloomy about a couple who made it for so long deciding to end it, especially when that couple has a few generations of offspring looking up to them. It’s like a veteran runner deciding he can’t finish the same race he’s trained his students to run. What hope do they have if even the vet can’t do it?
Grandparents’ divorce obstructs a kid’s view of Jesus. And that’s the toughest part about all this. Parents trying to give their children a solid understanding of marriage as a picture of the gospel will feel some tension here. They will feel the need to hold up clearly that divorce is a contradiction of Jesus’ love for his people, yet they will not want to unnecessarily hinder the grandchild/grandparent relationship.
Keeping these perspectives in mind, perhaps the following points will be helpful:
1. Be forthright to your children about the fact of their grandparents’ divorce.
Many families, whether out of fear or passivity, simply don’t address children directly about the situation. Perhaps parents feel like their own anger or confusion is too fresh to have a productive conversation with their children. Perhaps they just don’t know how to bring it up. Perhaps they want to shield their children from reality.
All of these reasons fall short. Parents need to tell the kids about the divorce so they can also determine what is revealed and how it is framed. Start with the simple fact of the divorce: that it is occurring and when.
2. Explain the reasons for the divorce, being careful to be both fair and biblical.
Having established the fact of the divorce, children will wonder the reasons for it. And this is where the tougher part of discipleship comes. You want to be careful since the reasons for the divorce are almost never agreed upon and often sordid in detail. So it’s best to summarize generally each grandparent’s reason without embellishment or unhelpful details:
Grandma says that she doesn’t love grandpa anymore because he’s hurt her too bad. Grandpa said he stayed as long as he could in the marriage, but he wants to be free to be with someone else.
If parents were to stop with simply giving the grandparents’ stated reasons, they would be abandoning their call to disciple their children. They must also evaluate those reasons in light of Scripture. If this is all children hear, then they will conclude that divorce can just happen for any reason that stands up to personal judgment. This won’t make them feel particularly secure, nor will it contribute to a biblical view of marriage. This is a difficult task for some parents, but they must stand with God’s view of marriage, not the grandparents’.
Two specific biblical points must be clear to the kids: First, God alone gets to say what reasons allow for a divorce: sexual immorality and abandonment only (Matt 5:32; 19:9 and 1 Cor 7:15). Second, divorce never occurs apart from sin (Matt 19:4-8). There is no good divorce, even if there is an innocent party.
So given the Bible’s understanding of divorce, your evaluation will have to disapprove of the actions of at least one of the grandparents. You will have to say that one or both of them is wrong. If one of the grandparents is the innocent party in the divorce, then this should be made clear to the children. This may upset the grandparents, of course, so it’s best to be straightforward with them beforehand what you will be explaining to the kids. They may not agree, but at least you have shown them the respect of forthrightness.
3. Explain what will and will not change about the relationship with each grandparent.
Even if parents are themselves hurting, they should explain carefully that their love for grandma and grandpa does not change, even for the grandparent who is most guilty in the matter. This is another dimension where the gospel needs to be displayed. Parents must maintain a culture of respect for each grandparent, not rehearsing the wrongs in a condemning way or displaying bitterness themselves. A great way to do this is to share with the children your own disappointment and pain, followed by your commitment to be gracious to them anyway, since God was so gracious to you (Luke 6:27-36). Your kids will pick up on how you respond to people who disappoint you and store it in their minds for the day when they disappoint you.
But grace does not mean the relationship must remain exactly the same. Often, changes to the relationship will come about as the result of this new reality. It’s good to prepare kids. Holidays won’t be the same. Visits will be arranged differently. Conversations will likely be about different things. The same level of closeness may be impossible to maintain. In cases of a particularly hostile divorce, they may not be seeing one of the grandparents again. Trying to act like everything will be the same is both unrealistic and unhelpful, since sin has relational consequences. You’ll want to be realistic about those consequences without exaggerating them.
4. Invite the children to express themselves to you.
Children will respond in a variety of ways to divorce in the family: anger, apathy, confusion, sadness, and most of the time a mix of it all. Parents should set an open-door policy right away on these matters. Often, a kid will have some misperception or fear that grows within if not addressed. As they express themselves to you, identify with their pain and confusion, then direct it to the Lord by looking at the Bible and praying. In this way, you teach them the vital life skill of expressing their hearts to the God of all comfort.
5. Insist that lifelong marriage is possible in the strength of Christ.
Divorce is frightening to kids because it reveals how uncertain relationships are in this world. How can people who have promised to love each other become so ugly and hateful? For some kids, this is the first unveiled look at the estrangement sin causes. What hope is there?
And perhaps that question will make them more receptive of the only sure answer: Jesus Christ loved his bride, even when she was so entirely unlovable. And his power makes it possible for a man to love his wife for a lifetime, and for a wife to do the same (Eph 5:22-33). Kids will need to hear that lifelong marriage is possible.
In all this, you are making three main points to them about the gospel:
- People’s love for one another is imperfect.
- God’s love for people is perfect.
- God’s love perfects people’s love for one another.
A great place to show how these three points converge is 1 John 4:7-12. Our only hope to love each other is to know God’s love for us.
6. Pray for both grandparents with the children.
How easy it is to overlook this last point. But not only is prayer powerful before God, it is also powerful before your children. In prayer, they see both your dependence upon God and also your love for their grandparents.