A Christian understanding of myself as a child of divorce. The loss and recovery of my being | Kenneth Lo


Said a young man in his 20s as he remembered his parents’ divorce: “Several months later when I was up in my attic room I heard the back door close with a soft click. The sound was nothing out of the ordinary but something about it set me on edge. I crept down the stairs and found my mother sitting in the Kennedy rocker they had bought when my brother was born. Her face looked empty. “What happened?” I asked, dreading the answer. “Rob has left,” she said. The floor seemed to slide from under me. My stomach twisted and my face was suddenly burning hot. I flung myself onto my mother’s lap, sobbing uncontrollably. She held me tightly and slowly rocked…All I felt was numb fearI was afraid for my mother to let go of me.” This essay seeks to explore the loss and recovery of my being as a child of divorce.

A Christian understanding of myself as a child of divorce. The loss and recovery of my being.


My parents’ marriage came to an end a year after my mother left the house and took a night flight to London. I was sixteen when she left and the divorce papers were signed before I turned seventeen. Since then, by the grace of God I have become a Christian. I have also married and have a child of my own. Now, I am a follower of Jesus. I am a husband to Vivian. And I am a father to Samantha. In these, I know who I am. As I cast myself back into the divorce drama, I remember the fear and anxiety and confusion involved. Surprisingly, the exercise touched raw nerves. I should have expected the pain recollection brings – I am after all still a child of divorce.

This essay seeks to make sense of who I am as a child of divorce. Firstly, it examines and reviews the view that ‘the loss of family is the loss of being’ (Roots’ The Children of Divorce is particularly in view here). The aim is to understand what happens to one’s being as a result of the parents’ divorce. Secondly, the essay also seeks to make sense of who I am as a child of divorce who has been redeemed by the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. The essay argues that divorces cause serious ontological damage to the children involved. But it further argues that the being known by God effectively recovers these damaged children and heals their wounds. Through this reflection of the loss and recovery of my being as a child of divorce, the essay suggests some pastoral implications.


What happened to the being of children when their parents divorce?

As I cast myself back into my parents’ divorce drama, I remember wrestling (though not explicitly) with existential questions – who was I? where I belonged? Andrew Root was clearer and articulate describing the experience of his parents’ divorce as ‘sliding back into nonbeing’, ‘having nowhere to stand’, ‘simply disappearing’ and ‘fading into nothingness’.[1] Is Root right? What actually happened to my being when my parents divorced? This segment seeks to answer this question by examining and reviewing Andrew Root’s bold statement: ‘the loss of family is the loss of being’.

Root’s consistently strong assertion is that divorce is primarily not an issue of social capital and simple psychology but of ontology. The argument comprises essentially of three major parts.

Firstly, he argues from the historical analysis of marriage and family. His demonstrates from a brief historical sketch of the Western family that the purpose of the marriage has changed over the last six hundred years. It has shifted from property and power mergers, to labour, and then to love. This change means that children today discover who they are in the world (ontology) and how to act in it (agency) primarily from their love-based family unit.[2] Root’s historical insight helps to establish a direct connection between the child’s being and his or her family unit. This means disturbance to the family unit inevitably leads to disturbance to the child’s being. It alerts us that something significant happens to the being of children when their parents’ divorce.

Secondly, Root argues from social and philosophical perspective by employing primarily Anthony Gidden, James Loder and Martin Heidegger. Gidden’s social theory reveals that social life should be thought about more deeply than at the levels of epistemology and structure. It should be examined at the level of ontology and agency. This means that the construction of our social world changes how we formulate identity and intimacy; it changes how we are and act in the world.[3] Following Gidden’s findings in Modernity and Self-identity, Root examines late modernity from the level of ontology and agency and argues that it is the social world that provides one with ontological security.[4] And because of modernity’s future orientation beyond tradition, ontological security now rests heavily or even solely on the family unit which the child’s primary social world. He therefore argues that divorce, which causes great social change in the family, drastically reformulates how one is and acts in the world, puncturing one’s ontological security.

And finally Root argues from a theological perspective. Root’s argument essentially comprises two major theological components. In both, he heavily engages Karl Barth’s anthropology. The two elements, which overlap, are the doctrine of the analogia relationis and the imago Dei.

Firstly, following Barth, Root asserts the relational view of self by using analogia relationis. Barth is chosen because his theological construction is done through the categories of act and being. By doing so he moves past defining humanity in epistemological categories (knowledge) or structural realities (substantialistic faculties of humanity) and seeks to articulate what makes humanity human through encounter as both act and being.[5]

In pitting of analogia relationis against analogia entis, Root clearly emphasizes that the analogy between God’s being and humanity’s being is not in substance, but in relationship. This Trinitarian model of ‘One triune God: three Persons in perichoretic union’ is classical orthodox foundational statement of the Trinity since the Cappadocians, Eastern theology generally. It flows from this model that the perichoretic God has created us for an interpersonal communion which is analogous to his. Root is working from mainstream charted waters here. He should however exercise some caution. For although we have been created in the image of the triune God, our interpersonal communion will never be his unique perichoresis, either quantitatively or qualitatively. But the point Root is making for the exploration of the being of children of divorce is clear: ‘Just as God is God in being in relational community of Father, Son, and Spirit, so we have our being in relational community’.[6] Knox similarly affirms Root’s point that the divine/human ontological analogy is best understood in the context of the doctrine of the Trinity: ‘The doctrine of Trinity […] tells us that ultimate reality is personal relationship. God is ultimate reality, and is the ground of all other reality […] and God is relationship. God is Trinity […] through the revelation of the Trinity we learn that the living God, the good and true God, is a God who has relationship within himself […] In the light of this doctrine, personal relationships are seen to be the most real things that are […] we have been created in God’s image for relationship.’[7]

Relating this doctrine to the discussion of ontology of children of divorce, Root argues that ‘the family, as relational community, provides the child the dependability of connection, commitment, and companionship that in an actual way makes him or her real’.[8] By establishing being as being-in-communion through analogia relationis, Root has helpfully moved the crisis of children of divorce to relational ontological grounds. For it shows that the relational union that divorce destructs strikes the child’s heart of being. MacFadyen similarly acknowledges this cause and effect: ‘If it is the case that our personal identities are moulded through our relationships, then there must be some connection between the quality of those relationships and that of our personhood.’[9]

Secondly, turning directly to Barth’s perspective on the imago Dei, Root argues that what makes us human is not a collection of internal substances but rather relationships. Root orthodoxly denies imago Dei as shared substance or essence (intellect, will, or emotions) between God and humanity.[10] Instead he follows Barth: ‘Barth proposes a major paradigm shift in theological anthropology: one from seeing the human being as an individual defined by innate faculties to seeing the person as a dynamic-interpersonal agent whose faculties arise only as they exist in relations to other.’[11] He makes same point as in his first argument from a different theological ground; his definition of imago Dei. Methodologically, Root lacks depth in arguing for this definition. He claims ‘according to the biblical text […]’ without showing any biblical evidence.[12] MacFadyen comes to the same conclusion with a more extensive treatment of the topic.[13]

Relating this doctrine to the discussion of ontology of children of divorce, Root argues that ‘a relational understanding of the image of God […] does reveal a deeper conflict […] It asserts that we are ourselves […] in being bound to one another. This is what ‘becoming one flesh’ means’.[14] Root’s concept of one fleshness resonates John Chrysostom’s: ‘The child is a bridge connecting mother to father, so the three become one flesh […]’.[15] Rubio picks this up saying: ‘A Christian marriage with children is a three-in-one flesh unity, so divorce in a marriage with children is not the breaking of a two-in-one flesh, but the even more serious rupturing of three-in-one-flesh’.[16] Root is right arguing that if we believe the imago Dei is a relational reality rather than a substance, the real issue of divorce is the destruction of the child’s most primary community. Though divorce doesnot delete the imago Dei in a child, it cuts deep into one’s personhood. It is no surprise then, that children of divorce ‘feel like we are losing our realness, for we have been pushed in opposition to our constitution in the image of God.’[17]

Furthering Root

Olsen rightly praises Root’s for challenging many readers to consider the lasting effects of divorce on children through a careful, interdisciplinary study. Indeed as Rubio observed, while theologians have grew silent on this issue for many decades, social scientists have done much research and there is now a wealth of information on divorce as a social phenomenon.[18] Root’s work provides two key additions to literature on divorce. First, by reframing the issue in ontological terms, he raises the stakes of divorce. Second, placing children at the centre of his inquiry gives them a voice that is often lacking in assessments of the effects of divorce. ‘What happened to the being of children when their parents divorce?’ Root’s sociologically-supported analysis of divorce as an ontological crisis proves insightful in answering this question. Considering the pain and destruction to a being divorce brings to the children, Root has done well in trying to express the damage in words. It is not surprising that the sharpest expression of his answer to this question lies in all his anecdotes and testimonies from children of divorce themselves.

However, it must also be noted that because the concept of community is central to Root’s argument, it has also shaped what he thinks could be done to help the children of divorce. In his final chapter, he urges the local church to become more involved as the community in which the child of divorce can construct a fruitful image of self in relation with others after his ontological ground has been torn by divorce. Root offers sound practical advice for pastoral ministers, parents and friends of divorced children so that they can help these children ground their being within a caring community. This essay however aims to take the needed recovery process beyond what Root has recommended. It has recognized with Root the serious damage that divorce causes to one’s being. But the essay will further argue that the recovery of one’s being must to be rooted in being known by God. [19]

Recovery of one’s being: being known by God.

Firstly, the recovery of one’s being must be rooted in being known by God. Root does well in asserting that to be real is to be in relation with others. He argues substantially that ontology is constituted by relationality and there is no community more primary than that of mother and father, than those responsible for one’s being.[20] He lacks however exposition on the equally, if not more, important relationship for any human being – relationship with one’s Creator. For his Creator God is the one truly responsible for his being! Torrance is right in including both human community and God in his understanding of being-in-communion: ‘What we need is a better understanding of the person not just as an individual but as someone who finds his or her true being-in-communion with God and with others, the counterpart of a Trinitarian doctrine of God.’[21]

Following Brian Rosner’s lead, this essay argues that along with adoption, the neglected concept of ‘being known by God’ is fundamental for our understanding of the divine-human relationship and hence one’s self. As we shall see, Rosner’s second article very interestingly picked up our child-parent theme and even alluded to Root’s concept of ontological security.

Like Root, Rosner recognizes that as human beings we need others. He agrees with Root that being is being-with: ‘We need others physically, emotionally, intellectually; we need them if we are to know anything, even ourselves. Knowledge of self […] is linked to living and being known by another.’  But where Root ends Rosner continues. He connects the relational aspect of humanity with the concept of God’s knowledge of man. Hence Rosner continues: “The connection between loving and being known actually goes back to the apostle Paul: ‘If one loves God, one is known by him’ (1 Cor.8:3; RSV).”[22] In other words, while Root finds fulfilment of one’s ontological need in human community, Rosner points to fulfilment of this need in being known by God. When Root concludes that ‘[…] it is through relationship that we are made real and saved from nothingness’, he could sound narrow and vague.[23] For he says: ‘We need to be in relationship with others; we must be in community to feel real’.[24]

Rosner points to Galatians 4:8-9 where Paul reminds the Gentile Christians of their previous plight before affirming their current blessed status: ‘Formerly when you did not know God […] but now that you know God, or rather (mallon de) are known by God’.[25] He argues that mallon de puts the emphasis on God’s knowledge of the Galatian Christians without denying their knowledge of him. Amongst many other biblical warrants, Rosner also used 1 Corinthians 8:1-3 and 13:12 but the point is clear for our purpose: ‘What counts is not so much our knowledge of God as God’s knowledge of us. That is the syntax of salvation.’ [26] Rosner’s emphasis on this side of the divine-human relationship further informs us on how any recovery of children of divorce’s being is possible. Biblically, the concept of God knowing human beings is rare. But Rosner shows that references to being known by God typically appear at critical points in the biblical narrative.[27] He basically argues that being known by God is equivalent to three related notions: belonging to God, being loved or chosen by God, and being a child or son of God.

Firstly, to be known by God signals God’s ownership of an individual or group. In Numbers 16:5: ‘God knows those who belong to him’. Being known and belonging to God seems to be equivalent. In 2 Timothy 2:19 ‘the Lord knows those who are his’. Quoting Adolf Schlatter, Rosner concludes: ‘to be known by God is to be God’s property’. This concept of ownership and belonging is strikingly similar to Root’s concern for the children of divorce’s loss of being due to the loss of a solid place of belonging.  In fact Root’s argument for the risk of love-based family is based on the loss of belonging which once anchored on the communal reality of kin unit, village, or tradition.[28] This loss can now be recovered and superseded when the child of divorce is known by God.

Secondly, to be known by God is to be chosen by God. Pointing to Paul’s affirmation in Romans 8:29 that ‘those who God foreknew he also predestined’, Rosner explains that as a synonym for election in this verse, God’s foreknowledge refers to the setting of his love upon the elect in advance. He explains that “knowledge here carries the sense of intimate relationship, as in the famous euphemism for sexual intercourse in Genesis 4:1, ‘Adam knew Eve’”. Such notion of an intimate relationship that known by God offers again reminds us of Root’s concern for children of divorce. Root quotes Eberhard Jungel: ‘This means that we become whole not from within ourselves or from our own resources, but only from outside ourselves…If we wish to experience ourselves as whole persons, we must experience more than ourselves’.[29] Root locates Jungel’s ‘outside ourselves’ in the community. Again we see Rosner continues where Root stops. Rosner similarly quotes Eberhard but he adds: ‘Jungel’s theological anthropology likewise locates the essence of humanity in what lies beyond the person. In his view, being known by God is critical to epistemology: we know because we are known.’[30]

Thirdly, Rosner follows John Calvin in connecting being known by God with the doctrine of adoption. Calvin proposed that ‘to be known by God…simply means to be counted among His sons.’ Rosner’s allusion to the hymn of 1QH xvii in the Dead Sea Scrolls is of particular relevance to our discussion. It is worth quoting him extensively here:  ‘The juxtaposition of being known by God with references to his father and mother suggests that the author conceives of God knowing him as a parent know their child. This is reinforced a few lines later, when he contrasts the care God has shown him to that of his human parents. Poignantly, the author observes that if his mother did not know and his father let him down, at least God knew him.’[31] Besides the striking resemblance to Root’s language, this is a powerful insight for the healing of children of divorce. In the late-twentieth-century, loved-based marriages break up because the father and mother, in search of their self-fulfilment fail to consider the security and self-fulfilment of the child. In some cases, the child does not even know the father or mother. In divorces, the parents have indeed failed the child, damaging his being. But by divine election, as Rosner and Calvin suggest, the child’s being is recovered by his Father God who truly knows him. Rosner’s bold suggestion to revise the Enlightenment dictum is apt for the recovery of the child’s being: “‘I think, therefore I am’ to be revised to, ‘I am known, therefore I am’”.[32]

Root’s many testimonies reflect the deep pain suffered by the children of divorce. In light of this, Rosner’s point on the comfort and security supplied by being known by God is also very relevant to our discussion. Richard Baxter called being known by God the ‘full and final comfort of a believer’ and J. I. Packer claims that there is ‘unspeakable comfort’ in it.[33] And again interestingly, Rosner speaks here of the parent-child relationship: ‘[…] it seems that being known by God offers a stable and secure identity, not unlike that which parents hope to provide for their young children, which is cheering and comforting in and of itself.’[34] The biblical concept of known by God powerfully and accurately locates the recovery of being for children of divorce in the act and being of God.

Conclusion & Pastoral Implication

As recognized previously, Root’s work is masterful and an enormous contribution to this topic. It revived serious consideration on the ontological impact divorce has on the children involved. In ‘Furthering Root’ this essay aims not to dismiss the crucial pastoral action Root suggested. Root is right to urge the local church to become more involved as the community in which the child of divorce can construct a fruitful image of self in relation with others after his ontological ground has been torn by divorce. Truly, the church needs to weep with those who weep. Without forcing a false dichotomy between the church and ‘being known by God’ (for it is through and within the church community that the news of being known by God is heard) this essay attempts to push Root’s pastoral implication a step back – prioritising true being in being-in-communion with God. By doing so it hopes to guard against the possible tendency towards a social gospel. Who I am as a child of divorce? I am one whose being is damaged but recovered for I am known by God.


Chrysostom, John. On Marriage and Family Life. Crestwood, N.Y. : St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1986.

Knox, D. B. (David Broughton). The Everlasting God. Welwyn, Hertfordshire: Evangelical Press, 1982.

MacFadyen, Alistair I. The Call to Personhood: A Christian Theory of the Individual in Social Relationships. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Root, Andrew. The Children of Divorce: The Loss of Family as the Loss of Being. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2010.

Rosner, Brian S. “Known by God: C S Lewis and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.” Evangelical Quarterly 77.4 (2005): 343-352.

Rosner, Brian S. “‘Known by God’: the meaning and value of a neglected biblical concept.” Tyndale Bulletin 59, no. 2 (January 1, 2008): 207-230.

Rubio, Julie Hanlon. “Three-in-one flesh: a Christian reappraisal of divorce in light of recent studies.” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 23, no. 1 (March 1, 2003): 47-70.

[1] Andrew Root, The Children of Divorce: The Loss of Family as the Loss of Being (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2010), xv.

[2] Root, The Children of Divorce , 30-33.

[3] Root, The Children of Divorce, 90.

[4] Root explains ontology security as a deep sense of safety, constancy and reliability of person and things based on being and not simply in knowing. Root, The Children of Divorce,  47.

[5] Root, The Children of Divorce, 69.

[6] Root, The Children of Divorce,  73 & 90.

[7] D. B. Knox, The Everlasting God (Welwyn, Hertfordshire : Evangelical Press, 1982), 51-52.

[8] Root, The Children of Divorce,  74.

[9] Alistair I. MacFadyen, The Call to Personhood: A Christian Theory of the Individual in Social Relationships (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 18.

[10] Root, The Children of Divorce, 91.

[11] Root, The Children of Divorce, 91.

[12] Root, The Children of Divorce, 92. This is understandable given his commitment to synthesis historical and social data ,psychology theories with theology in his treatment of  this topic.

[13] MacFadyen, The Call to Personhood, 17-44.

[14] Root, The Children of Divorce, 92-3.

[15] John Chrysostom, ‘Homily 12: On Colossians 4:18’ in On Marriage and Family Life (Crestwood, N.Y. : St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1986) , 76.

[16] Julie Hanlon Rubio, Three-in-One-Flesh: A Christian Reappraisal of Divorce in Light of Recent Studies, 49.

[17] Root, The Children of Divorce, 100.

[18] Julie H. Rubio, ‘Three-in-one flesh: a Christian reappraisal of divorce in light of recent studies’ in Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, 23:1 (2003),  48.

[19] The biblical concept of ‘in Christ’ also has much potential to shed light on the recovery of being of children of divorce. Regrettably this essay does not have the space to engage this doctrine.

[20] Root, The Children of Divorce, 86.

[21] T. F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons, 15.

[22] Brian Rosner, ‘Known by God: C S Lewis and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’ in Evangelical Quarterly, 77:4 (2005), 345.

[23] Root, The Children of Divorce, 74.

[24] Root, The Children of Divorce, 74.

[25] Rosner, ‘Known by God: C S Lewis and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’, 346.

[26] Brian Rosner, ‘Known by God: C S Lewis and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’, 346.

[27] Brian Rosner, ‘Known by God: the meaning and value of a neglected biblical concept’ in Tyndale Bulletin, 59:2 (2008) , 208.

[28] Root, The Children of Divorce, 11-14

[29] Root, The Children of Divorce, 73.

[30] Brian Rosner, ‘Known by God: the meaning and value of a neglected biblical concept’, 227.

[31] Rosner, ‘Known by God: the meaning and value of a neglected biblical concept’, 215.

[32] Rosner, ‘Known by God: the meaning and value of a neglected biblical concept’, 227.

[33] Rosner, ‘Known by God: the meaning and value of a neglected biblical concept’, 223.

[34] Rosner, ‘Known by God: the meaning and value of a neglected biblical concept’, 224-5.