We're starting a new century more wealthy than ever. And less happy than ever. In his book Britain on the Couch (Century, 1997), psychologist Oliver James gives two key reasons why. One is that we compare ourselves unfavourably with others. The other is what he calls 'broken attachments' - significant relationships that have come apart at the seams.

Probably all of us been affected by a divorce in our family or among close friends. It's a big part of modern life and it impacts each one of us. It is vital that we work out what is or isn't appropriate for biblical Christians.

The media constantly portray divorce as normal and marriage as irrelevant. Nobody in EastEnders is in a stable long-term marriage. Most of them simply live together and it's hard to hold out much hope for those who do get married.

Oliver James asked the novelist Fay Weldon why she always portrays sex wars with 'not a happy couple in sight'. She replied, 'Where I live divorce and infidelity are the rule' (Britain on the Couch, p163).

Nick Horby's best-selling novel About A Boy is all about 'family' relationships in the modern world. But not one of the families in the book is a traditional family with a married couple and their children. The implication is that marriage is no longer a viable institution.

There is a growing trend towards accepting 'different kinds of family units' as valid. New guidelines on fostering issued earlier this year placed no particular value on the traditional model of the family. Even The Children's Society chooses to define a family as 'an emotionally supportive network of adults and children, some of whom live together or have lived together'.

The drip-feed effect of seeing marriage and the family downplayed in the media makes us question its validity. Is marriage little more than a social convention that's had its day? Is a divorce really going to harm my children? Wouldn't I be better off out of it?
Divorce rates in England and Wales are the second highest in Europe. If recent trends continue, more than a third of new marriages will end within 20 years; 40 per cent will eventually wind up in the divorce courts. The most recent official statistics (for 1997) show the lowest divorce rate since 1990 but they're still four times higher than three decades ago.

In addition, the number of people getting married has fallen sharply, dropping by 20 per cent between 1986 and 1996. More people see cohabitation as a better option. The Office of National Statistics estimate that there will be twice as many cohabiting couples by 2021 (Population Trends, ONS, Spring 1999). That's despite a higher likelihood of separation: half of all cohabiting couples split within 10 years compared to just one in eight married couples.

Of course children are so often caught up in the middle of it all. Over 400 children a day see their parents divorce. At least a quarter of children will experience this before they are 16. The situation is even worse if we include children of cohabiting parents since a quarter of all children born today fall into that category. Taking them into account the figure rises to almost half.

In 1997 almost a third of children caught up in divorces were under five years old. Over 70 per cent were under ten. What is the real impact on these children?
In the last few years, media reports have tended to downplay the effect of marriage breakdown on children. An article in the Times (24 June 1998) picked up on a study published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (Bryan Rodgers and Jan Pryor, Divorce and Separation: the outcomes for children (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 1998)).

The article claimed that it's better for children if their parents separate than stay together and argue. The real harm, it said, comes from bitter fighting during the breakdown of the relationship.

But, while most children do survive relatively unscathed, Rodgers and Pryor showed that children of divorced parents have 'roughly twice the probability of experiencing specific poor outcomes in the long term compared with those from intact families'. The 'specific poor outcomes' they list include poverty, behavioural problems, struggles at school, depression, leaving home and school early and becoming sexually active at an early age.

Statistics don't tell the full story though. They can't convey the emotional trauma that children experience when their families fragment.

Kurt Cobain, the lead singer of Nirvana, was a very happy child who used to run round the streets banging a toy drum and singing Hey Jude at full volume. When he was eight years old his parents separated. 'It just completely destroyed his life' according to his mother. He became depressed and never came out of it. He turned to drugs and finally blew out his brains with a shotgun.

He's an extreme example perhaps. But we dare not fool ourselves into thinking that the children will be unharmed by divorce.

Divorce in the Bible

What does the Bible have to say about divorce? It assumes that marriage is for life. Genesis 2:24 tells us that 'a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife and they will become one flesh'. Literally, he is to 'stick' to her'. The expression, 'one flesh' suggests that this is not something that should later be divided up again.

Divorce is permitted in the Old Testament (though the circumstances under which it is are never fully spelled out) but Malachi insists that God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16).

When some Pharisees asked Jesus about grounds for divorce (Matthew 19:3f), he referred to Genesis 2:24 and added the words that are part of the marriage service: 'What God has joined together, let no-one separate'. He goes on to point out that the reason the Old Testament permitted divorce was to allow for human sinfulness (v. 8).

In Luke 16:18 Jesus is very much straight to the point: 'Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.' But back in Matthew 19 and in Matthew 5:31f, Jesus makes clear that the unfaithfulness of one partner justifies the other in getting a divorce.

Jesus is adamant that divorce is a very serious matter. But he also makes clear that the innocent parties are not to be condemned. Paul allows a further justification for divorce in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16. If a spouse who is not a Christian wants to stick with the marriage, great! But if the unbeliever leaves, the Christian partner is not bound.

How, then, should we respond to people who are divorced or currently going through the painful process? Or, indeed, to people who have remarried?
In cases of infidelity, one partner wrongs the other. Of course it is true that both partners are guilty of failures, mistakes and sin. Sometimes these contribute to a state of affairs in which one partner seeks intimacy with someone else. But at the end of the day, one of them is unfaithful to the other. The 'innocent' person is likely to need a great deal of support and encouragement. They are likely to be carrying a load of guilt even if the marriage breakdown isn't their fault.
But what of those divorced for other reasons? Or what about the partner who has been guilty of unfaithfulness? How should we treat them? Again, we treat them with care and compassion - few people are unhurt by divorce even if they instigated it and appear to be getting along just fine. Something profound happens in marriage and not many people are able to simply walk away.

It is not our place to make judgements about who is to blame. All too often we make big assumptions because we only hear one side of the story. Or because we think we know the people involved rather better than we really do.

Neither is it our role to condemn people for their sin. Divorce is not the unforgivable sin we have often implicitly assumed it to be. Forgiveness is available to all who will accept it.

The sin of divorce may be very obvious. But then, every last one of us is a sinner. We would do well to recall the time when Jesus had a woman caught in adultery dragged before him (John 8:1f). 'If any one of you is without sin,' he said to her accusers, 'let him be the first to throw a stone at her.' When there was nobody left to condemn the woman, Jesus said to her, 'Then neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.'

Sin has been committed but it can be forgiven. We should expect people to acknowledge their sin - whether or not they were driven to it by circumstances, for we are still responsible for our actions. And then they should get on with striving to be holy. If God forgives them, God's people should accept them. They will need lots of encouragement and support to work through the consequences of what has happened. We need to imitate our heavenly father who is a 'forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love' (Nehemiah 9:17).

And yet at the same time we need to be clear about the Biblical standard of marriage being one man sticking with one woman for life. We should go into marriage fully expecting it to be a permanent bond and doing our absolute best to make it work. In our churches we should do whatever we can to support families and marriages. All the more so in the face of the eroding influence of the media's portrayal of relationships.

We need to do so because this is the way God has decreed that marriage should be. God uses marriage as a picture of his relationship with his people. This is why there's so much about Israel's adultery in the Old Testament - that's what their idolatry amounted to. We see this supremely at the end of the New Testament where the redeemed people of God are the bride of Christ. Marriage is intended to represent Christ's committed, sanctifying love for us and our devotion to him-though our devotion will be far from perfect this side of the new heavens and earth.

And since marriage for life is God's intention, it's likely to be in our best interests to live that way. Research has consistently shown that, overall, men, women and children all fare best in marriage. It's best for society as a whole.

Stein Ringen, professor of Sociology and Social Policy at Oxford wrote a paper on the family for the left-wing think tank Demos. In it is says, 'Western Societies were wrong to see the family as peripheral to modern life. We have yet to understand how rapidly and radically the circumstances of family life are now changing at the cost of economic efficiency and social fairness in our societies. Formal marriage should be encouraged and informal cohabitation should be discouraged. The availability of cohabitation encourages unions of weak commitment.'

There is a huge challenge for us here. We live in a society where divorce and remarriage are increasingly the norm. In 1998, the Henley Centre for Forecasting said that by 2020 the traditional family will no longer exist and ten-year marriage contracts will be a reality. Nobody expects a job for life and soon no one will expect a marriage for life.

Somehow we must demonstrate both the permanence of marriage in God's sight and the reality of God's grace for weak, sinful human beings in a broken world. The Bible insists that we work at our marriages. Our churches should do all they can to support them-and the marriages of those who don't know Christ.
The Bible also insists that forgiveness is available to all-even if they don't feel that they can forgive themselves. We must provide support and encouragement for those who are divorced and are badly hurting as a result. As broken relationships become more and more part of life, we have a huge opportunity to witness to the possibility of restoration through what Christ has done for us.