Hope for a hopeless marriage

Another guest post by Angel Davis, my friend and collaborator in ministry. In this blog she shares how her marriage was transformed by her own decision to lean in and let God transform her life. This is Angel’s testimony:

Not much gets better after 36 years, but I’m happy to say marriage has.

That was my husband, texting with his brother on our anniversary. Those fourteen words are such a sweet gift to me. They are a testimony and a miracle, because there was a time when our marriage could only get better.

About halfway into these thirty-six years, I was ready to walk. Throw in the towel. Start all over with someone new who truly loved me. Someone who would understand me, invest energy in me and help me feel secure. I was sure I would never find these things with my current husband.

I had tried and he had failed.

What stopped me from walking? In a word, Jesus, who I now understand as the author of life and love. He gave me no easy out when I begged for one. He gave me no excuses when I manufactured plenty of them. “God, I’m a counselor. I help other marriages heal and thrive. I’ve tried everything in my own, and it hasn’t worked! The only solution is to leave.”

That argument made perfect sense to me, but True Love stopped me from walking out the door. Believe me when I say that isn’t how I defined it in those days. It didn’t feel like love to me at all. In fact, it felt more like punishment and it made me angry. “Fine, I’ll stay God, and now I’ll be miserable the rest of my life.” I felt bitter, rejected, unloved, dissatisfied, not understood — all fruits of a selfish spirit. I had no idea what True Love was or where it came from.

Oh, I thought I knew! I thought I knew what love was and what “fair” was and what I needed. After all, I’m a licensed counselor! I know all these things for other people. And I’m a student of the Bible. I ought to know for myself, too … right?

What I discovered was that while I knew a lot of things in my head, I knew almost nothing in my heart, where it counts. I had not had a transformational, personal encounter with Love Himself around the issue of my marriage. I had not surrendered that to the One who changes hearts, changes perspectives, changes lives.

Eighteen years later, so much has changed. I am still married to the same man I once wanted to leave, but inside this marriage I have experienced love I never knew existed. I have a sense of security and assurance I didn’t know before, and a deep peace beyond anything I could have hoped for. There is contentment. Satisfaction. Belonging. Acceptance. This was the payoff of staying in it and working the plan from God’s angle.

How did it change? You’d think (given my own vocation) we’d immediately get into counseling, but we didn’t. I went to counseling myself for a time and that helped, but I already knew the psychological truths. Mind you, they are good and some are very powerful and beneficial in managing life and making it more tolerable. But all transforming truth ultimately comes from God. He made the heart and only He knows how to care for the heart. So the real change was a heart change. As I leaned in and listened to the Holy Spirit, what I discovered was that I didn’t so much have a marriage problem as a heart problem.

Someone had to go first and in our case it was me. According to his plan and pleasure, God chose to call me first to step up and let him change my heart. As He lovingly hemmed me in, He took me on a journey of heart transformation that changed me permanently. And that change in me brought new life to our once dead marriage.

(Side note: Dead is definitely how I saw what we had. In the season before our transformation, I had diagnosed the marriage and pronounced it dead. As a trained and licensed counselor, you would think I had the insight for that and as a spouse the “right” to it. But guess what? Only the Author of Life can decide when there is no life left. Until then, we had a responsibility to live.)

Had I moved forward with my desire to run, I grieve to think of the tragedy, devastation and lasting effect that would have had on both of us and our children. If I’d done what my selfish heart wanted, today we’d be sitting on separate aisles at our daughters’ weddings, planning separate family holidays, splitting time with grandkids. Family vacations would be near-impossible, not to mention the heart damage — resentments, bitterness, and unresolved anger rippling through the entire family. I grieve to think of our children having to navigate new relationships with their parents, losing their childhood family, finding themselves as adults craving (just as I did) security and assurance.

Those hurts don’t end in adulthood. They are lasting. The world and the enemy of your soul (who cares nothing about your kids or grandkids) will convince you everyone will get over it and be fine. And in some small percentage of cases, that may be true. It is also true that in God’s economy, nothing is lost. In His mercy He redeems everything, even the worst hurts. He can make beauty out of ashes. Divorce is not the ultimate sin.

But dear friends, listen: only God can determine life. We don’t get to decide what is dead and what isn’t. We are not wise enough, smart enough or powerful enough to make that call. No matter how many degrees or how much experience we have, we are not the Author of Life nor the fountainhead of True Love. Only God gets to make that call.

Are you struggling in your closest relationships? Are you wondering if it is time to give something up for dead? Before you make that call, will you allow the Author of marriage and the human heart to have yours today? Will you surrender your expectations and allow Him room to do the deep transformative work only He can do? Here’s the assurance: he will do it, if you allow him, because he specializes in the restoration of things … even something as difficult as your marriage.

What learned from my experience is this: It only takes one person in the hands of a loving God …

Angel H. Davis is a Christ follower who lives in Athens, Georgia and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker specializing in healing prayer. Read more from Angel in her book, The Perfecting Storm: Experiencing God’s Best Through the Trials of Marriage. This is an exceptional resource for those who want to see transformation in their marriage.

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How to act on the brink of brokenness (or, divorce and the mercy of God)

Roly-poly1We used to call them roly polies. When I was a kid, they were hands-down my favorite bugs. Finding a family of them under a brick in the dirt was like finding a whole other world.

When a roly poly is stretched out and moving forward, he is one of the most flexible animals on God’s green earth. But when he balls up to protect himself he becomes the opposite of flexible. Stretched out, he can maneuver through dirt and grass and under rocks. Rolled up, he is incapable of mobilizing at all. He is just a hard ball of crustacean trying to protect himself.

When Jesus talks about divorce in Matthew,* it makes me think of the roly poly. Jesus says, “When you ball up to protect yourself, you default to a hard heart. And in a marriage, a hard heart can be a killer.” That “rolling up’ we do can manifest as anger, emotional withdrawal, dishonesty, manipulation or even bitterness. It is us, backing off emotionally until we feel nothing and have lost all sense of possibility.

Stretched out and moving forward, we put ourselves in line with immense possibilities. In a self-protective crouch, we are incapable of seeing the options.

In Jesus’ word about marriage and divorce, he reveals what he knows about human nature. The one who spoke us into being knows how we are made —  our weaknesses, how we cope, how we tend to protect ourselves. He knows our tendency toward self-protection leads us in directions we don’t intend to go.

And in his great kindness he offers mercy even at the dying end of a marriage. Not because it is God’s best but because sometimes it is the best we can do.

Sometimes marriages will fail. I believe this is exactly the point Jesus was making in Matthew. In a fallen world, tough things happen, things that are not God’s best. Sometimes it will happen because of our own fallenness; sometimes it will happen in spite of our best efforts at restoration.

What then? We are limited but we serve a God of immense possibilities. In the middle of something that feels like a valley of dry bones, what is our right response?

Acknowledge what is. Recently I had a conversation with someone whose marriage is teetering on the brink of brokenness. The comment was made: “I have to decide whether I want to be married to this person or not.” To which I replied, “Too late. You already are.” Married is married. Vows are vows. At the very least, be honest about what is.

Remember: there are a million steps between your unhappiness and divorce. When things go wrong, we tend to default to “fight or flight” mode and neglect all the options available to us. Keep in mind that we serve the most creative Being in the Universe. Surely he can come up with a solution or a way through that we haven’t yet considered. Is counseling an option? A conversation with your pastor? What about a weekend away? Or a weekend apart (but in safe places)? Spend time listening to the Holy Spirit and writing down every option you hear. Don’t discount any of them; allow God to open up the possibilities for you. A crisis will often narrow our perspective. Allow God the chance to widen it again. Remember the roly poly and stretch yourself. You can’t move forward in a defensive crouch.

Let Jesus referee. When face-to-face communication stops working, try knee-to-knee communication. Bring Jesus into the conversation through prayer. Praying together does two things in a marriage. First, because it is such a real and intimate thing, it is a place where you really get to hear the other person’s heart. People tend to be more honest, more transparent when they pray. Second, because it is a prayer, God hears it. Jesus says that wherever two or three are gathered together, he is right there with them. So if you want to make that triangle thing happen in your marriage, prayer will do it for you. Prayer is like a zipline that takes you immediately into God’s presence. If praying aloud isn’t comfortable, sit together and pray quietly. Start somewhere.

Remember that your circumstances are not the foundation of your happiness; God is. By focusing on circumstances, we make others responsible for our joy. Others must behave in a certain way in order for us to be at peace. If, on the other hand, we’re able to focus on what Christ has done, we find ourselves rooted in something more stable. Root your emotions in your relationship with Christ, especially in times of uncertainty. This change in perspective may be the key to moving us from hard-heartedness to whole-heartedness.

Is there room for divorce within a Christian worldview? Yes. When infidelity happens, the trust that is broken may be irreparable. When there is abuse, it is both our right and responsibility to remove ourselves from the abuser (some boundaries are holy; this is one of them). When others are acting immorally or illegally it is an act of mercy and maturity to hold them responsible for that. To let a person persist unchallenged in their sin is not healthy for either of you.

We will also get divorced for reasons that aren’t so noble or clear-cut but even then, we must remember that divorce — while it is not God’s best for us — is not the unforgivable sin. We can rebuild, restore and become new people as we forgive and take responsibility. Even when we miss out on God’s best, we remember that we are not sinners in the hands of an angry God. We are people who sin in the hands of a merciful God.

Praise God for grace enough to cover all of it — the good, the bad and the painful.

 

* They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” — Matthew 19:7-9

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