There are many deep and dark torture chambers of the soul that I have not experienced. But I have been swallowed alive by the pit of divorce, twice. Its rotten odor, its razor edges, its oxygen-deprived atmosphere—I know it.
“There comes a time in almost everyone’s life when they feel like Adam must have felt the first time he watched the sun set. All the beauty and warmth of light morph into night. It doesn’t happen instantly. It’s not like the flip of a light switch. First there’s fear as the sun crawls toward the horizon, then bewilderment as it vanishes, then shock as the world we once knew envelops us with darkness.
There are times when a man and a woman, even though they’re good people, even though they’re both married and committed to their respective spouses, even though these spouses love them, find themselves falling in love with another person whom they think is their soulmate.
She’s cooking breakfast when he stumbles through the back door of their humble Arkansas home. Eyes bloodshot. Shirt unevenly buttoned, as if done in darkness, and in haste. She doesn’t turn around. No need to. More times than she cares to remember, my great-grandmother has seen my great-grandfather looking like something the cat drug in.
When we stand east of Eden with Adam and Eve because we couldn’t keep our hands off forbidden fruit, weeping over lost loves, lost chances, lost lives...
It was March 10, 2008, when Cindy found the emails. She remembers because it was her birthday. She was turning 33. Her husband would be working late, again, but he’d promised to make it home in time to take her out to dinner at her favorite Thai restaurant.
I know a family in turmoil. The mom and dad are at odds over the children; the younger brother has lied to and stolen from his older brother. He’s so crazy with rage that he’s plotting to murder his kid brother. And this same older brother, mad at his dad, too, finds out what really gets under the old man’s skin and sets out to do that very thing to spite him. And the younger brother—the thief and liar—is so scared for his life that he runs away from home. I know this messed up family. And you probably do, too. Their names are Isaac and Rebecca, Esau and Jacob. Broken homes such as theirs, full of broken hearts, broken promises, anger, spite, guilt, and all kinds of nastiness, are nothing new.
Here is Jacob, the younger brother, the man on the run. Asleep with a rock for a pillow. Alone between a past full of deceit and a future fat with fear. And there, in the midnight of his sleep, he dreams a dream no mortal had ever dreamed before. A ladder stretching to the stars, the stairway of angels. Up to heaven and down to earth the angels go. From Jacob to God they ascend, from God to Jacob they descend. Here is a living bridge from creature to creator. And the Lord speaks, “I am the God of your grandfather, Abraham, the God of your dad, Isaac. And I am your God, too, Jacob.” He is a God with a past full of promises and a future full of their fulfillment. He doesn’t scold this sleeper for having had a deceitful past. He doesn’t give him a tongue-lashing for his theft. He promises him the very land on which Jacob lies; descendants as numerous as the grains of dust that are his bed; and most importantly, the God at the top of the ladder says, “I am with you, and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
Wow, that sounds sweet, doesn’t it? All these grand promises. But maybe you’re thinking: “Where’s God when I need a dream like that? Where’s God when my real life feels more like a nightmare—one that goes on and on and on? Jacob had it bad I suppose; but I tell you what, that runaway and I could compare scars. Let me tell you about my dysfunctional family. Let me tell you what it feels like to crave love from those closest to you and not get it. Let me tell you what’s it like to lie in bed at night and pray you don’t wake up in the morning just so all the pain will be over. Let me tell you not about my dreams but about my fear to dream, my fear to hope. Let me show you my scars.” Maybe that’s what you’re thinking.
If you are, let me tell you something. You may not believe it; you may even scoff at the claim, but here’s the truth: God hears your roar of pain on the other side of your silence. He counts every tear you let escape, or refuse to let go, from the ocean of anguish inside you. He is your God, too, as much as He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and that deceiving, stealing, runaway Jacob. And since He is your God, neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities, neither things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate you from the love He has for you in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing and no one.
And here’s the thing about God: He actually keeps His promises. For richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, for better or for worse. When you’ve made more stupid mistakes than even you can remember. When you’ve hurt virtually everyone who’s tried to love you. When you can barely stand to look at your face in the mirror because all you see is shame and failure staring back at you, mocking you. When it feels like you’ve wallowed in the mud of hell itself, you have a God who loves you. You have a God who cares. You have a God who will stand up publicly beside any man or any woman, embrace them, forgive them, and say to the world, “This is my child. I love him. I love her. And I defy you to say otherwise.” You have a God like that. You have a God who cannot and will not stop loving you and keeping you and dying to make you right.
These are grand promises, and they are as real as your pain and doubt and fear. But they are better, and stronger, because they are God’s grand promises, and He stands behind them. You want a dream like Jacob’s? You want a ladder and the pretty angels and God up top all strong and talking to you? You want too little. You need more than that. You need more than a dream. You need something concrete. And you got it.
You need a God who pushes the angels aside and climbs down the ladder. You need a God who doesn’t just make promises, but also keeps them, and who Himself becomes promise and fulfillment. You need a God who not only comes down that ladder from heaven, but also brings heaven with Him, who pulls heaven downward and lifts earth heavenward, and fuses the two together in His very own body. The God of heaven, the Man of earth, in one person, Jesus the Son of Mary, the Son of the Father.
You see greater things than Jacob saw. You see the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man. You see people with broken lives, from broken families, with broken and bleeding hearts, welcomed into the kingdom where they find peace that they dared not even dream existed this side of the grave. You see people whom society has rejected, whom friends have shunned, called friends of God, heirs of the kingdom, sons and daughters of the king. Do you see yourself there? There you are. That is who you are because of Christ Jesus.
Show your scars to Him and He will show you His. His scars endured to heal your own. He will take your scarred heart in his scarred hands and love you, and love you, and love you still more, until all that matters is not the scar upon your heart, but the scar embedded in His hand. All that will matter is not how hellish life can sometimes be, but rather how heaven itself is grasped in this God who came to earth to be Himself that ladder by which we ascend to the Father. He will wipe away your tears, cleanse you of your shame, embrace you as a member of His family, and tell you, “I am with you. I am Emmanuel. I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, and your God, now and unto ages of ages, and even forevermore.”
There are times when you feel like a spectator who views in slow motion the demolition of your life. Mini-explosions rock the foundations of everything that gave you meaning and purpose. Maybe it happens when you stare at the surreal spectacle of a coffin descending into raw earth, or the X-rays of a brain tumor, or the officer standing at your front door serving you papers for divorce.
Although I wrote this article almost a year and a half ago, someone reads it almost every day. Readers stumble upon it when they Google phrases such as "divorce anniversary." That's just one small token of the multitudes of people who struggle to recover from a broken marriage and the lifelong scars that violent separation can bring. I am reposting it on my blog today so that perhaps it will reach some who haven't seen it. This is my own unedited, raw reflection upon what divorce did to me, as well as what I learned from it. I'm sure some will take issue with my disagreement with St. Paul, but that's okay. Perhaps I misunderstand the apostle and need to be corrected. If you are reading this as one who suffers the ongoing pains of divorce, know that I am praying for you, that Christ may work healing in you, as He has in me.
Today, December 29, would have been the twenty-second anniversary of my first marriage. Five years have passed since our divorce—years raw with emotion, scarred by mistakes, scabbed over with hints of hope. Every year, when this day rolls around, I turn over the stones of remembrance that litter my mind, to see what lurks beneath. I see things there I don’t want to see, learn things about myself that I never wanted to know, but do anyway. I also see there lessons learned, painful but positive lessons. This piece is more for me than anyone else, though you are welcome to tag along and spy on my thoughts.
1. The Undivorced Don’t Get It. I’ve never stood by the freshly dug grave of my beloved wife. Never has the blood of a fellow soldier been showered on me during a firefight. I’ve never been bankrupt or homeless or had cancer. I don’t know about a lot of things, because I haven’t experienced those hells. The happily married, undivorced man or woman knows nothing of the agony of divorce, and should never pretend otherwise. This includes pastors, and all those who may seek to counsel the divorced. They should never assume they “get” what the divorced person is going through. Every loss, every grief is unique, and to make it generic by universalizing it cheapens the hurt the divorced feel.
2. I disagree with St. Paul. When he writes to the Corinthians, Paul says, “One who is unmarried is concerned with the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife,” (1 Cor 7:32-33). Not for me. Most men who are unmarried are concerned with finding a woman whom they can marry. And until they do that, most of their thoughts, energies, time, and, yes, money, are directed toward that end. I was much more concerned about the things of the Lord when I was married than when I became single. It is not good for the man to be alone, and so long as he is, it won’t be good for him personally, or his service to the Lord. With notable exceptions, men are created for women. And it is in the vocation of husband that they serve the Lord best, for they are completed by her.
3. Lonely, Hurting Men Make Bad Decisions. I made the mistake many men do immediately after their divorce: the first woman I dated, I “fell in love with” and soon we were making wedding plans. I later broke off the engagement as the reality that this was a rebound relationship slowly sank in, although, of course, it was at an additional emotional cost to both of us, as well as our mutual children. Every relationship is a risk, but the risk skyrockets when the man is still nursing wounds from a failed marriage. He wants nothing more than a restored wholeness, to recreate a past that either did exist, or exists only in his nostalgic imagination. And in this state of yearning for healing, he tends to idealize a woman, seeing in her the wife he wants her to be instead of the woman whom she really is.
4. Divorce Unveils the Monster Within Divorce brings out the worst in people. It certainly did in me. I was little aware of the fathomless depths of anger, spite, depression, regret, pettiness, and selfishness within me until my marriage ended. Then it all came oozing, or exploding, to the surface, in various ways and at various times. I remember late one night, while working in the oil field, having a conversation with another driver who was going through a divorce. His wife had left him for another man. He described how his every waking moment was consumed with fantasies of revenge, murderous payback, horrid thoughts he’d never entertained before. Divorce can do that, unearthing new evils within. It’s a dark journey of self-knowledge. And although, thank God, most of the time these monsters within us remain caged, never acting out the evils of which they are capable, the sheer fact that they are there at all is enough to make me scared of the man I have the potential to become.
5. Healing Will Begin, But It Takes Its Sweet Time I’m fortunate because I survived divorce. I didn’t put a gun to my head and pull the trigger, though on my darkest of days I held the pistol in my hand. I didn’t become addicted to something that would dull the pain, though I did my fair share of self-medicating with alcohol. I came through, wounded and scarred to be sure, but at least alive. Not every one is so lucky. God placed into my life a few select friends without whose love I would not have made it. Not surprisingly, these friends are divorced as well. They get it. I am at a point of healing now, five years later, that I thought I’d never reach, even if I had five lifetimes. I still have a long way to go, but at least I’ve made progress. Baby steps are steps nonetheless. I have two children, a son and daughter. They live with their mother and step-father. I see them four to six days a month—days that mean the world to me. As heart-breaking as my time apart from them is, I have grown to thank God that, in the aftermath of our divorce, our children are still provided with a stable, secure, Christian home in which to grow up. Indeed, they are blessed with a good mother and a caring stepfather.
The very fact that I can write that last sentence, and mean every word, is proof positive that, five years after my divorce, the Lord has made a little progress in putting this shattered man back together again.
I was sixteen years old when I met the rest of my life. Of course, I didn't know it when it happened. We never do. All I knew, on that February evening in 1987, was that a local girl had asked me if I wanted to go with her to the FHA Sweetheart Banquet. Her name was Stacy. I said yes, we stood at least six inches apart for the official picture that evening, and I took her home afterward. That was our evening. That was our first date. And that would be our only date until over a quarter of a century had passed. We went on about our lives. She eventually married and became the mother of a daughter and son. I eventually married and became the father of a daughter and son. We carved out our place in the world. And both of us, in our own ways, saw those worlds collapse. We both found out what it's like to fall into darkness and wonder if you'll ever see the light again. We both became profoundly different people over the course of that quarter of a century.
Twenty six years later, we went on our second date. We were no longer naive teenagers. We were no longer innocent. But we were both ready to begin life anew, to find love and acceptance and forgiveness in someone who would be flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone.
One year ago today, God joined us as husband and wife. These past twelve months have been the best year of my life. I do not exaggerate. I could never have anticipated how much one person would mean to me, how God would use her to bring such profound healing and hope to my life.
Last year, at this time, right before our wedding, I published a short piece entitled, "Call Me Lazarus." Here it is again. It is even truer today.
Call Me Lazarus
I’ve hunkered down in a dark place, where light is not only absent, but banned. The darkness is loved, almost worshiped, for it is a sanctuary in which to hole up and lick one’s wounds without fear of having even more inflicted upon you. God is unwelcome there, as are his phantasms of hope and love and tenderness and fidelity and all other mirages that slake one’s thirst with a mouthful of sand. Going there are those who flirt with a pistol to the head, whose veins flow with whiskey, whose child lies under six feet of soil, who curse the day of their birth, who spend every waking and sleeping hour playing and replaying the nightmares of their past. I’ve been to that dark place, and some of you reading this have, too. Maybe, in fact, you’re there now.
Today I stand in the light. There is one reason, and one reason only: because the God I once hated, never stopped loving me; the God I screamed at until my voice collapsed in on itself, never interrupted me; the God I damn well knew had become my worst enemy, never stopped being my compassionate Father. I blamed him for my sins, the sins of others, for just about everything wrong in my life. I did trust God, but I trusted that if I asked for a fish, he’d give me a snake; or if I asked for medicine, he’d give me poison. I was angry at heaven, at earth, and everything in between, for my life and my love and my hopes had all gone wrong, terribly, irreversibly, wrong.
But it was I who was wrong, terribly, but not irreversibly, wrong. I’m not here to tell you that God had some grand plan for my life, and I finally discovered it, and now everything is sweetness and light. I do still struggle with my past, and I probably always will, to an extent. The present is almost always charged a certain tax by the past.
What I will tell you is that, despite all evidence to the contrary, despite what you think and feel and imagine, God is indeed in that dark place. You don’t know it, but he’s licking your wounds, too. And he’s keeping the deeper, blacker darkness at bay. And he hears, on the other side of your angry screams, the cries of a hurting child begging for help, but not knowing how to ask for it.
Today I stand in the light, and—miracles of miracles!—this week a woman will stand beside me in that same light, to take my hand in her own, look into my eyes that once beheld only darkness, and tell me, before the witness of heaven and earth, that she will be my wife. I would have believed the blind would receive sight, the lame walk, and the deaf hear, before I would have believed that I should be so blessed as to be as happy as I now am.
But therein is the love of God revealed, a love that gives us gifts beyond anything we could imagine or comprehend. Why, O why, am I surprised, for if God did not spare his own Son, but lovingly gave him up for us all, how will he not, along with him, graciously give us all things?