I am going through a divorce. I don’t say that flippantly. After 19 years of marriage and 4 children, I never imagined those words would be true of my life, but here I am living it. I come from a background steeped in reformed theology. My history tells me I should never be shocked by sin, and I should always believe the worst about myself. But honestly, I amshocked. As I write, I am in the middle of it. I am not at the sweet spot with gained perspective, looking back proclaiming God’s faithfulness. I am in the middle, looking ahead, desperately hoping He will be faithful as He promised.
When I was a sophomore in college, I lost my fake ID and joined a campus ministry all in the same week. The changes in me were a shock to anyone who knew me. I had been a waitress at a Hooters-type restaurant and only a few weeks later, signed-up for a Bible study with the same enthusiasm. Initially, I was warmly welcomed at Bible study, but then came the rules. Though unspoken at times, the weight of “how-to” Christianity grew heavier and louder than the simple message from the One who says: “Done.” Although there was no rest for the weary, it felt good to me. I drew security from making a list and checking it off.
Within this system of “to-do’s” I knew what to check off to get validation, influence, and respect. I am not saying I perfectly checked these off, but I busted it trying: modesty, spiritual disciplines, serving others, disciple others, local church involvement, courtship, accountability, sin management, sanctification, Biblical fellowship, Titus 2, purity before marriage, following teaching on Biblical roles, submission, homemaker, Biblical marriage to exemplify the gospel, homeschool children, shepherd their heart, love them, train them, check, check, check.
I thought I was getting better by doing. My relationship with God was more about my performance instead of His grace. I didn’t see the need for grace because I was determined I could do it. I huffed and puffed and lived by works. I might have believed in grace, but I definitely didn’t believe in grace alone. What I didn’t understand was: I can’t be good enough because the law requires perfection. I can’t get better. I still fall so short. I need a rescuer, not just in the beginning but every day.
The thing about living this way, besides not seeing my need for grace and not getting any better, is that it also affected those around me. As I checked off my boxes, I made sure others were checking off theirs too. I was a real “sweetheart” to be around. I own the damage I did to others, but after 22 years of living under the law, it finally crushed me.
I now realize, I had a very low view of the law in that I thought I could keep it if I just tried harder. And harder I tried until I could not do one more day. I crashed hard, but in my get-better, law-keeping system, there was no place for failure. I spent weeks feeling desperately weak and miserable. I was so worn out. We got rid of the dog. I went on anti depressants and put the kids in public school. None of this helped.
Around that same time Elyse Fitzpatrick came to speak at our church. The title of her talk was: “Because He Loves Me.” I went, desperate to hear. For the first time, I left a conference with no “to-do’s.” Is His love for me so simple that I’ve missed it? Thus began a journey of reading authors who spoke honestly of grace and God’s love. Brennan Manning became my life-line. I would throw his book across the room, offended at the mysticism, and then in tears pick it back up hoping this Abba-love was true, even for me.
It was the most disorienting time of my life. For 22 years I fit inside a box of narrow and easily written out beliefs. I could tell you exactly what I believed about everything. Now all of that was coming undone and I questioned everything. I wrote. I read. I cried. I prayed. When all you’ve ever believed is being violently undone, it’s terrifying, and God was wrecking me. But He was not doing the same work in my family. It didn’t fit neatly into the Biblical roles paradigm. It was a hard year of trying to wrap my mind around something that cannot be grasped or controlled—grace! Ann Lamont says it best: “I do not understand the mystery of grace, only that it meets us where we are and doesn’t leave us where it found us”
After a year of wrestling, we left the only church we had ever known. Orienting to life among new people and a new way to live felt like being an outsider in my own town. But day-by-day, this journey of living loved and grace began to heal and free me.
Two years later, we found a new church and seemed to be growing together as a family in grace and freedom. We were in marriage counseling and our kids were adjusting to public school. But then my marriage fell apart. It isn’t from a lack of knowledge or trying. We’ve done more marriage conferences than I can count, read all the books, went through years of marriage counseling, even led others through pre-marriage counseling, and had a small group in our home for years. This is deeper than something knowledge alone can repair.
Truthfully, my marriage had been unraveling for years. Within the religious system we subscribed to, our narrowly defined marriage roles did not give freedom or space to just be. It was a constant drive toward doing. I managed by trying to control my fear, and he managed by living in denial. This is the foundation of how we coped. When God’s love breaks through, it brings an awareness of truth that is both terribly painful and beautifully freeing. His grace is awakening me to the truth of my marriage while piercing me at my deepest fears. In this brokenness I am desperate for healing.
If, four years ago, God had not rescued me from my performance-based lifestyle to His finished work, I would be utterly devastated right now. It’s funny because I “do” less these days, but am more certain of His relentless love for me in my fiercest time of uncertainty. My identity was so built on being a wife and mom. Now, my identity is beloved. What can shake who I am if He says it’s true? It’s so crazy how living loved affects all those things I tried so damn hard to gain through my performance. I take such great comfort in knowing there are those who “get it” without any need to explain. That’s amazing grace and I am so grateful.
While this is true and real, this kind of love doesn’t make living easy or safe. So here I am, in the midst of a divorce. When my husband left, all I could do was cry and breathe, though there were days that even breathing was laborious. The hardest part is night, not because I am afraid of the dark, but because I dread facing the next day. I wake up waiting for it to hit me that it’s all been a bad dream. Instead, reality sets in. Can I really do this all over again today? Which leads me to my most honest prayer. “I can’t. You can.” Sometimes that’s all I can say.
There are days I can’t stop crying because I’m afraid. Will God really take care of me? Will he take care of my children? It’s all a mess and I don’t have a clue how to fix it—how to fix us, how to fix me. I’m not sure I even know what “fixing” would look like. It’s one thing to talk about and read about God’s love for me. It’s another thing to be completely undone by it.
Today as I am writing this, I woke up to an empty and quiet house. The children are with their dad. I can hear the rain outside rhythmically hitting the window behind my bed. I lay here and just listen. I stay in bed a little longer and drown myself in the sound of the rain. I think about this God who at times seems so far away, but today the rain He sent is graciously tapping against the window so near my head. Is he really this close? I revel in the freedom. I don’t have to do anything today. I can stay in bed all day. And I do for most of the morning. I read. I listen. I think. I write. I pray. The silence has a sweetness and I’m beginning to taste it.
There is a freedom in this season that is freeing me. And yet, my old self still haunts me. That voice tells me that the things I’m enjoying today are selfish. I remind myself that I don’t have to feel guilty for feeling some happiness. (Even though happiness is different than joy, yes I’ve heard the sermon, read the book). It seems the undoing of my marriage is less severe than the undoing of 22 years of legalism. But will I ever not hear that voice of guilt?
Well-meaning friends tell me they are praying for healing of my marriage. I wonder what that even means? Maybe God cares more about the people in a marriage than the institution itself. Maybe the way God is going to heal my marriage is going to look different than how the church told me marriages are healed. Maybe He is going to undo my marriage and heal the people inside that marriage. I don’t know what God is doing. I imagine if I figured it out, He’d cease to be God.
So I wait. And it’s hard. But I want to live in this wait, not just wait in the wait. Surely there is life here too, among the brokenness and death? I can diagnose myself, but I can’t deliver myself. It’s my moment of surrender. I’m out of options. I have no control. So I cry out desperate for the same relentless love that rescued me 4 years ago to deliver me yet again.
All I know “to do” is rest in His love for me to do this work of life in me. Brennan said: “to the degree you know you are loved, you will trust.” I ask Him again and again to help me believe His love for me. As I am consumed by His love, I’m trusting it will do its thing in me. I don’t even know what that thing is, but He does.
That is my only hope. And today, right now, in this very moment that’s enough.
So I am praying while not knowing how to pray. I am resting while feeling restless, at peace while tempted, safe while still anxious, surrounded by a cloud of light while still in darkness, in love while still doubting. – Henri Nouwen
UPDATE 1-12-16: Allison joined us on our podcast and shared her story with us. Now that you’ve read her story, you can also listen to it. For more podcasts, visit our podcast site at http://www.chiefsinnerpodcast.com or on iTunes.
Allison is a born & bred Tennessee girl who graduated from the University of Tn many years ago and spent the last 16 years as a stay at home mom to 4 wild & crazy kiddos. This last year brought new changes and lots of loss and she now enjoys working for an Interior Design studio and being inspired by design & creativity. In her spare time, she likes to write, study theology and travel.