There are endless studies and analysis discussing the results of a poor home life on academics, potential earning capacity, and psychological health. This post instead focuses on the spiritual consequences of broken homes, a subject sadly overlooked. This being stated, it is also important to remember as you read this, that those raised in homes without (true) love are disadvantaged on almost every front, and are perhaps among the poorest (even if not materially).
It is said that home is where the heart is, but for children, home is where the heart is formed, for better or for worse. One of the most important lessons, likely the most important, that a child’s heart must learn is the nature of love (literally, what is love?). In a broken home, this lesson often goes badly wrong, leaving the child with a distorted, often narcissistic, picture of love. This lesson gone bad, once learned, is not only difficult to unlearn, but also leaves the child spiritually hobbled.
Most every parent, even the bad ones, tell their children that they love them, and even when they don’t, the child will still assume that the parent does indeed love them. When the actions of the parent lack love, the child will almost invariably develop a very distorted idea of what love is. A parent that abuses a child physically will teach a child that love is unforgiving and that the child is not really valued. A parent that consistently places his or her wants before the child’s needs will teach a child that love looks after itself first, and cares nothing for sacrifice. A parent that abuses a child emotionally will teach that child that love is manipulative and is blind to all but its own emotions. A parent that is detached and disinterested will teach a child that love is something that thinks the child has little value. A parent that sexually abuses a child teaches that child that love violates the most sacred of trusts, and that love is cowardly enough to blame the child for the atrocity.
Really everyone, child and adult alike, have a concept of God, at least in the abstract. The understanding that God sits enthroned, that God created all that is, and even that God is good, is close to universal. Far fewer, lamentably, understand love, and herein lies the problem. When a person from a broken home is told “Jesus loves you”, the Jesus part they understand, but the love — there’s the rub.
To be clear, many from broken homes have a fairly decent understanding of love, on the conscious level, but it is in the subconscious where the lessons of childhood so often lurk. It is in these dark catacombs where “Jesus loves you” gets translated into “Jesus is unforgiving”. Past lessons here teach that “Jesus loves you” means “Jesus is really only interested in your obedience, not you”, or “Jesus will leave you”, or “Jesus will violate you”.
In Sunday school, it is said, if you don’t know the answer to the question, just answer “Jesus”, and you will usually be right. Here, while of course it is true that Jesus is the answer ultimately, would that it were so simple. People that have a perverted picture of love cannot see Jesus, not really. Sure, they can have an abstract concept of Him, but they remain blinded because God IS love (1 John 4:8, emphasis mine).
While they may not be able to see Jesus, do you know who they can see? You. Be Jesus to them. Love them. Really love them. I know no other remedy. 1 Cor 13 tells us many things about love, but one has special import here: patience. In my experience it takes a lot of love to unlearn tragic lessons of childhood. I’ve been doing my best (which admittedly isn’t much — I never said that I was good at what I do) to love the same kids (now adults) for a decade now, and it is clear that yet more is needed.